It starts with the little things. You catch your significant other humming Winter Wonderland, or fondling ornaments in the store. Perhaps you find a bit of eggnog in their cup, or that they've suddenly developed a taste for peppermints. Before you know it, their eyes radiate with a feverish gleam, and the house is festooned with tinsel. Know the symptoms of Christmas madness. Consult a health professional, or possibly an elf, if someone you know has succumbed to this seasonal delirium.
I knew it was too late for us that Friday after Thanksgiving, when Erin burst through the door like a whirlwind of good cheer. Within hours, colorful baubles and bits of toffee lay strewn in her wake, the TV was running A Christmas Story on endless repeat, and someone had started wrapping the coffee maker in festive papers. Of course, I'd caught it too.
I was surprised to learn that South Korea, as a whole, celebrates Christmas. Only about 30% of the population are Christian, but roughly 100% gets geared up for Santa and his elves. For the majority, Christmas is a secular holiday rather than a religious one, a celebration of giving and family.
You would think this would make it easy to celebrate Christmas in Korea, and it does... to a point. Unfortunately, many of the things westerners associate with this particular holiday can be difficult to acquire. So here, in case you catch the fever, I've compiled a short list of things that you can and cannot get in Korea.
Christmas Trees and Ornaments: Yes. Sort of. Go to any E-Mart or Lotte Mart, and they'll have all the fake trees your heart could want, next to a small mountain of decorations. Yes, the trees look like green pipe cleaners and yes, the ornaments are not particularly fancy or expensive, but you can get them. What you can not get are real trees. It may be possible in Seoul, but certainly not out in the country where we are.
Pumpkin / Pecan Pie: Yes... but again... sort of. Pecans are hard to come by, so making Pecan Pie yourself may be hard. However, some bakeries will sell slices of Pecan Pie. Where they got their pecans is anybody's guess. As for pumpkin, Koreans generally substitute squash. If you add a little brown sugar or honey, the taste is very similar. But I have not yet found anyone who makes squash/pumpkin pie. And if you want to make it yourself, you'd better have a supply of Evaporated Milk from home, since I've never seen it on a Korean store shelf. Sweetened Condensed? Sure. But not Evaporated.
Eggnog: Not unless you make it yourself, or you're living in Seoul with easy access to a western grocery.
Wrapping Paper: Yes... gobs and gobs of it, actually, though finding papers that are specifically Christmas themed may be more of a challenge. Koreans love wrapping things. They'll sell wrapping paper year round in the stationary sections of their stores.
Toffee/ Fudge/ Gingerbread: Yes and no, and again, it depends on where you are. Seoul is an international wonderland where you can find almost anything. But go anywhere else in the country, and your options are distinctly more limited. Koreans like desserts, and have a great fondness for sweets, but they would not be the sweets you'd find in America. Toffee? Not usually a thing. Gingerbread and fudge? Unheard of. And if you want to make this stuff yourself, ingredients may be hard to come by. Toffee is the easiest, but it's expensive since butter doesn't come cheap. But you'll never be able to make proper gingerbread or fudge. Marshmallow fluff and molasses are about as common as evaporated milk.
Christmas Atmosphere: Yes. Though only in certain places. Starting in December, any trendy or popular store will play carols. Major shopping malls will be festooned with Christmas decorations, and coffee shops and bakeries will cater to the season. You may see Merry Christmas signs (in English, mind you). You'll even have a few Christmas-themed commercials on TV, though they will lack the feverish intensity of American commercials. So you'll have no shortage of Christmas cheer floating around the air.
Snow: Not unless you're lucky. It doesn't snow much in South Korea, and when it does you'll more likely be annoyed by it (since shovelling and salting aren't really a thing here... get ready to go slip-sliding down the sidewalk!).
Anyway, that's all I can think of. We've had the good fortune to have parents who are kind enough to ship us many of the things we miss like evaporated milk and canned pumpkin. Even that isn't a perfect solution, since international shipping is expensive and the package will often arrive looking like someone used it for a football at some point. Our boxes have been... festively scrambled, shall I say, with bits of jelly beans embedded in torn bags of coffee. It doesn't matter though, since a taste of home is always delicious.