Christmas traditions: Christmas in Korea growing increasingly Western

Officially Korea is a Buddhist country.

But Western influences have helped make Christmas an increasingly recognized holiday, says Kim Okran, a Burnaby businesswoman and author who runs 20 English-language schools in Korea, Japan, Mexico, Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto.

In fact it’s the only country in East Asia to celebrate Christmas day with a public holiday.

While some Christians may attend mass or a church service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, for most non-Christians the holiday is a chance to go shopping and celebrate with friends by going out for dinner at a restaurant.

“There is a lot less fanfare and presents,” says Okran.

“We don’t have special meals that Canadians have.”

But they do have a special Christmas cake, elaborately constructed confections decorated with chiffon, fresh berries and candy figurines depicting wintery scenes.

Some people put up a tree and decorate their houses, but not until the holiday is imminent.

Santa makes his appearance at shopping malls, handing out trinkets or chocolates, says Okran, but the acquisition and exchange of gifts is a lot more low-key than in the West.

“We usually exchange presents on Christmas Eve and instead of piles of presents, one present or a gift of money is customary,” says Okran, who immigrated to Canada 21 years ago.

Young people especially embrace the holiday, says Okran.

Young lovers will go to a movie theater or take in a show, while others will attend a party or go out carolling with friends. They reserve their family time for New Year’s.

“It has changed a lot to Western style of Christmas since I left,” says Okran.

• Okran’s self-published autobiography about her struggles as a new immigrant is titled Kim OK. To find out how to get a copy, email



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