Christmas in Korea (East Asia)
A Brief History
Christianity came to Korea in the 17th century when a Korean diplomat returned from China with books written by a Jesuit and introduced the ideas to other intellectuals. Ultimately, Christianity did not catch on until about two centuries later, thanks to Yi Seung-Hun. Yi Seung-Hun was introduced to Christianity while in China, where he was baptized. In 1785 he came back and began to evangelize his fellow citizens. He would ultimately become the first Catholic martyr. About 15 years later, priests came from China and then from France, but a grassroots movement had already begun thanks to Yi Seung-Hun’s efforts.
Because Catholicism had already been outlawed in 1758--as an evil practice--by King Yeongjo of Joseon, many Catholic Christians were martyred. In 1866 alone, 8000 Catholics across the country were killed. About 20 years later, American missionaries introduced Protestantism to Korea, as it had become more open to foreign influences. Although only 2% of the population was Christian before 1945, the church grew greatly after the war and Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation.
Korean education owes much to the influence of Christian missionaries, as they opened 293 schools and 40 universities. Whereas economic growth is tied to literacy rates, some Koreans attribute their subsequent post-war economic growth as a nation, to the blessings of God. A study by Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary has made a connection between economic growth and a society's belief in heaven and hell.
South Korea (the Republic of Korea) is the only East Asian country that celebrates Christmas as a national holiday. With a Christian population of about 25-30%, or more than 50% of the religious populous, S. Korea has the largest concentration of Christians in Asia. However, Christmas (Sung Tan Jul) is not nearly as commercialized as in the West, so there is not as much hustle and bustle, or decorations. This is because the big holiday in S. Korea is the Lunar New Year. Although Christmas is not as commercialized, there are lights at malls and on churches. Some people even have Christmas trees. Grandpa Santa (Santa Harabujee) can be seen wearing a red or blue suit! Merry Christmas in Korean is Sung Tan Chuk Ha.
Christmas is more of a religious holiday in S. Korea, so most churches have a Christmas day service, and many people attend, including some non-Christians. Usually people only give one meaningful gift to each other on Christmas Eve; more often it is money. Koreans don’t celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, so gift giving and celebration is usually reserved for the Lunar New Year celebration (Chinese New Year).
N. Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a communist state, so Christmas is not allowed. According to their constitution, freedom of religion is permitted, however, N. Korea has the highest rate of persecution of Christians in the world.
Although some families will eat Christmas dinner at home, many go out for dinner. Restaurants are quite busy on Christmas, as it is considered a romantic holiday for couples, much like Valentine’s Day. There are also Christmas buffets, for which many people make reservations well ahead of time. The usual fare is not likely to be traditional Western Christmas foods. The menu is more likely to include Bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef), sweet potato noodles, and kimchi. A Christmas cake or a buffet of Korean sweets finish out the meal.
Pray for the people of N. Korea who suffer severe persecution, especially if they are Christians. Pray for protection for our brothers and sisters in Christ, pray against the oppressive government. Pray for the end of the despotic reign of the current dictator and for true freedom in N. Korea. Pray for the Word to spread despite persecution. Praise God for the religious freedom in S. Korea. Pray that the Word would spread even more throughout S. Korea, which boasts the largest Christian church in the world.