When I first moved to Korea in 2016, I had a great time. In fact, in the first few months, I had a ‘honeymoon’ period and I really didn’t miss much from New Zealand at all. However, there were two times when I really felt homesick in Korea during my first few years. The first time was during my birthday and the second was during Christmas.
This was largely because I missed my family and friends, but it was also partly because I didn’t know how Christmas worked in Korea. What was Christmas about? Who celebrated it? And even more importantly, where could the Christmas Spirit be found in Korea?
In this article, I want to cover some common questions that ex-pats and travellers alike might have about being in Korea during Christmas. Although Christmas in Korea is definitely celebrated differently, it may not be as different as you think!
At the same time though, Christmas in Korea does have some differences. For example, it’s generally not treated as a family day, and the idea around gift-giving is also quite different from what you might be familiar with.
This post contains affiliate links. For more information, please refer to my affiliate disclaimer.
Korean Christmas Vocabulary:
- Merry Christmas – 메리 크리스마스 (non-formal) | 크리스마스 잘 보내세요 (formal)
- Christmas Day – 크리스마스 (Konglish) | 성탄절 (Korean)
- Gift/Present – 선물
- Santa Claus – 산타클로스 | 산타 할아버지 (Grandfather Santa)
- Christmas Tree – 크리스마스 트리
- Christmas Decorations – 크리스마스의 장식 (장식 – decoration)
Want to learn more Korean words? Check out 90 Day Korean for a great (and manageable) way to learn the language.
Brief History of Christmas in Korea
The first mentions of Christianity in Korea came over 400 years ago when a Korean diplomat came back to Korea (from China) bringing with him some books from an Italian Catholic missionary. Although this was the first record of Christianity in Korea, it was a minor religion and became banned in 1758.
In 1866, over 8000 Catholics were killed as they were seen as a threat to the leading dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty. Until the late 19th century, Christianity in Korea remained relatively small, and it was usually hidden in order for believers to remain safe.
Protestantism was first introduced to Korea around 20 years later when American Missionaries first started coming to the peninsula. However, even until 1945, Christianity remained relatively small with less than 2% of the population identifying as Christain.
The big changes came after World War 2, as in the 50 years following the percentage of Christians quickly rose from under 2% to around 25%, with the majority of them being catholic. While the exact reason for this quick rise isn’t certain, it is likely that it was at least in part related to education (many schools and universities are Christian) and the lack of a unified religion at the time.
Christmas first became a national holiday in South Korea under the U.S ruling government in 1945. These days, Nearly 30% of the Korean population is Christian and Christmas has become a national holiday. While it is uncertain exactly when Christmas became introduced to Korea, it is likely that it was near the introduction of the first Christian influences – although, at the time the celebrations would have needed to remain underground.
Regardless of when Christmas first appeared in Korea, it has now become a national holiday and it is now a holiday that is celebrated by many. Interestingly, South Korea is the only east-Asian country to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday.
While Christmas is celebrated in Korea, it is far from the biggest holiday of the year. Chuseok (often referred to as Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal are both bigger celebrations. Where Chuseok and Seollal are often spent with families, Christmas is a day that many Koreans spend with their significant other.
Christmas Weather in Korea
What should you expect from the weather during Christmas in Korea? Well, I’ll get to that in a second! However, I first want to answer one of the most commonly asked questions – will it snow on Christmas Day?
The unfortunate reality is that it probably won’t. Korea, and Seoul especially, usually only get two or three decent snowfalls per year. It’s unlikely that any of these will occur on Christmas Day. However, it IS possible! While it’s unlikely to snow on Christmas Day, there is a chance that it will happen.
So, what is the weather usually like? Well, expect it to be quite cold, with the average temperatures sitting at around -3 degrees Celsius. Although this is the average, on some years the temperatures can drop as low as -10 Celsius. Rarely will the temperatures exceed 5 degrees Celsius.
On top of this, the weather in December is usually very dry with low humidity. Make sure to bring some moisturiser to keep your hands and face from peeling. One more factor to consider is the fine dust.
Seoul AQI as monitored by AQICN.
December is one of the worst months for fine dust and the week around Christmas is usually the worst week of the month. For this reason, it’s important to keep an eye on the fine dust levels in Seoul. Most importantly, make sure to have a fine dust mask on hand just in case.
Is Christmas a National Holiday in Korea?
Yes! Since the end of World War 2 (and the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, when the U.S government temporarily governed), Christmas has been considered a national holiday in Korea. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t still get out and do lots of things!
As alluded to, while Christmas in Korea is a national holiday, you can expect to find the majority of stores and attractions still open. While many private locations may close (such as individually-owned restaurants and stores), nearly all big attractions along with chain stores will remain open.
This means that even though Christmas in Korea is a national holiday, you will probably find that your travel plans in Korea can remain in-tact and that you won’t need to change them. The only potential issue is if you had planned to visit some smaller stores or restaurants that aren’t owned and operated by bigger companies.
How Is Christmas Celebrated in Korea?
As I mentioned previously, Christmas in Korea is celebrated quite differently to how you might imagine and how you might be familiar with. Whereas Christmas is a family day in many other countries, Christmas in Korea is more of a couples day.
Instead, Chuseok and Seollal are the two main holidays in Korea where families get together. Although Christmas is a national holiday, there is generally a lot less gift-giving and family get-togethers. While this isn’t to say that no families get together, it is less common.
Since South Korea is largely Christian, you can expect to find many people visiting the church on either Christmas or Christmas Eve (or both). Usually, this will happen either in the evening on Christmas Eve or on the morning of Christmas.
Families with younger children will often spend the day together, celebrating in their preferred manner. However, older teenagers and young adults can usually be found out about dating if they have a significant other.
It is also worth mentioning that Christmas in Korea tends to be less commercialised than that in America and other western countries. While there is definitely gift-giving at times, it is far less pronounced than in other countries. The same goes for shopping – you will find sales, but don’t expect the crazy sales you find elsewhere. I really appreciate this, as Christmas often feels too commercialised to me.
On the note of gift-giving: gifts in Korea will often be replaced with a gift of money instead. While gifts seem to be becoming more common, giving money is still commonplace. Further, often each person will only receive one gift from their family, rather than gifts from each individual.
Overall, Christmas in Korea feels a lot more personal and relationship-focused. The focus on relationships during Christmas feels much stronger in Korea, and there is less emphasis placed on the commercial element.
Christmas Period in Korea
One of the most controversial arguments I have recently come across is the argument about when exactly it is appropriate to play Christmas music. Is it in later November (after Thanksgiving for example), or is Christmas music only appropriate earlier or later?
In Korea, while there is still some leadup to Christmas it is also generally less pronounced than in western countries. Sure, Starbucks might bust out the Christmas music beginning in mid-November, but you will usually only truly begin to feel the atmosphere in December. Usually, only a couple of weeks before the 25th!
This is reflected in the fact that some of the Christmas markets and lights are put up only a few days or a week before Christmas. For example, the Hongdae Christmas celebrations usually only run for a 10 day period – 5 days before and 5 days after Christmas.
Since most attractions and stores will remain open during the Christmas period in Korea, there is less of a need to come up with specific Christmas day plans while in the country. With that being said, if you have yet to make plans these are some places to consider visiting!
Shopping (Christmas Markets)
Of course, shopping is always an option no matter what the season. However, Christmas in Korea (and specifically in Seoul) also brings about any unique markets that only appear for a few days every year. Seoul already has fantastic shopping, but the Christmas markets bring a unique atmosphere.
These markets will appear all over the city and I recommend searching them individually for full details as, unfortunately, many have been cancelled for 2020 due to the pandemic.
If you are looking to see the best Christmas lights and presentations while shopping then consider checking out the department stores around the city – especially those in Myeongdong. The Lotte Department store in Myeongdong is usually totally lit up during this period. However, this is more of a shopping location if you are looking for nice lights alone. If you want to shop for unique Christmas goods, check out the markets below.
Perhaps the biggest and most exciting Christmas market in Seoul is the Hongdae Christmas Market. This market usually opens about a week before Christmas and you can find Hongdae transformed from its usual self into a whole market with the Christmas vibe during the week before and after Christmas.
There are also some other markets that can be found around Seoul near Christmas day. These change from year to year, however, you can often find markets near the Han River (especially Yeouido) and near Seoul City Hall.
View the Christmas Lights
If you want to see Christmas lights to get into the Christmas spirit, then you’re in luck. Korea has a few great locations to see the lights and Seoul especially has a few nice exhibits.
Many of the easiest to reach exhibits will occur in the department stores located around the city. Especially those near Myeongdong. The Lotte Young Department Store and Shinsegae Department Store in Myeongdong are both lit up inside and out.
On top of this, Myeongdong itself usually has big light displays on the main streets of the area. This makes it very easy and convenient to view the Christmas lights as you don’t need to go out of your way to see them – most people will end up visiting Myeongdong at some point anyway!
City Hall in Seoul also often has a Christmas display with a large Christmas tree along with other lights. Usually, this area will also have an outdoor ice-skating rink. If you want to give ice skating under the Christmas lights a go, then this is one of the few places that you can do so!
If you are looking for lights in a slightly more quiet area, you should also consider seeing the Christmas lights at Cheonggyecheon (a famous stream in central Seoul). This stream often has lighting festivals throughout the year, and Christmas is no exception!
However, if you want to see the best lights and don’t mind leaving Seoul on a day (or morning/afternoon) trip then I recommend visiting the Garden of the Morning Calm. This garden is famous for its year-round lights, and it’s located a few hours outside of Seoul. Although the lights are year-round, there’s no reason that they can’t be enjoyed at Christmas too!
Petite France is another great place to see Christmas lights as the whole town will be lit up. The best part about visiting Petite France is that many of the same tours also visit the Garden of the Morning Calm, and therefore they can both be visited in one trip.
Visit Myeongdong Cathedral
No matter your religious affiliation, the Myeongdong Cathedral is wonderful to visit during the Christmas period. This cathedral is named as the birthplace of Roman Catholicism in Korea and is a very famous landmark.
The cathedral can be visited year-round, but during Christmas, there are some unique elements that make it worth visiting. Firstly, the gardens outside are usually lit up with LED flowers similar to those that you can find at DPP. These lights make for some stunning Instagram photos!
Close to midnight on Christmas Eve you can find a reenactment of the nativity scene taking place. At midnight, mass will take place and this is open to everyone to take part in.
Party at Theme Parks
Although visiting a theme park might sound a bit out of place on Christmas day, it is actually a surprisingly popular activity. While I haven’t ever visited myself on Christmas day, I did visit on the 26th and it was extremely busy. Keep this in mind if you do plan on visiting as I can imagine Christmas day is also popular.
Lotte World in particular has many Christmas celebrations taking place inside the theme park and this is the theme park that I recommend visiting during December. Since winter in Korea can be very cold, Lotte World is quite suitable as more than half of the theme park is located indoors.
During the Christmas period you will find lots of characters in Christmas costumes, Christmas music, and more. In the evening closer to when the park closes, you can also find fireworks displays taking place!
If you don’t mind the cold, you could also consider checking out Seoul’s two other main theme parks – Everland and Seoul Land. Both of these are bigger than Lotte World, but they are both further away (especially Everland) and mostly outdoors.
Explore the Parks of Seoul
While many people will be staying indoors to get away from the cold, why not do the opposite and visit some of the beautiful outdoor attractions in Seoul for Christmas? Just remember to wrap up nice and warm before heading out to the parks in Seoul!
While there are a ton of different parks, many of which are fantastic, there are a few that I recommend in particular. Seoul Forest, World Cup Stadium, Olympic Park, and Seoul Botanic Park all offer great ways to enjoy nature while most of the crowds are away.
If you are spending the day with your significant other, then the parks of Seoul also provide a great location to go on a date to. While it can be a bit cold, it’s easy to offset this by wearing some warm clothes and staying in more sheltered areas.
Although snowing and ground snow in Korea is quite rare, you may even get very lucky and be able to experience some of the parks and gardens under snow! Make sure to check the weather forecast in advance so if there is a chance of snow you are prepared.
Stay Warm at Cafes
On the contrary, there is also a good reason to stay inside on Christmas day. One of the best ways to stay inside and to make the most of the warmth on this day is to visit a cafe and to experience the cafe & coffee culture of Korea.
It is worth noting that many smaller cafes will close. Locally-owned cafes with smaller numbers of customers will often close for Christmas day and other holidays. However, chain cafes and more popular cafes will more often than not remain open during these periods.
If you have children, why not visit an animal cafe such as a cat or dog cafe? (Although, there are also cafes with more exotic animals such as meerkats and racoons). If you are on a date, you might want to consider visiting a flower cafe or a ring-making cafe. Enjoy board games? Check out a board game cafe!
There is a massive variety of cafes to try out in Korea and the coffee culture is one of my favourite aspects of modern Korean culture. The cafes I mentioned above are only a small sample of what you can find in Seoul.
Leave Seoul with December Festivals
Many of these festivals aren’t exclusively on Christmas, but rather occur around the Christmas period. For a full list of festivals happening in winter, check out my post on the 50+ best winter activities in Korea. That post is far more detailed, and here I will just cover a few interesting festivals.
Some of the most interesting festivals for children are those that the theme parks hold. Lotte World, Everland and Seoulland all have festivals in the Christmas period with unique events that don’t take place at other times in the year.
However, what if you want to get out of the city? Then you are in luck! Korea has some very interesting festivals happening over the winter months. Two of the most unique are the Chilgapsan Ice Fountain Festival and the Pyeongchang Trout Festival.
The Ice Fountain Festival is another great choice if you have children. The festival is based on the ice (as you may have guessed…) and involves ice sculpture exhibits as well as tons of fun activities like sledging, and ice fountain, and eating Korean winter foods (like baked sweet potato!).
While the exact dates of each festival differ by year, I highly recommend checking out the dates of festivals in my best winter activities post. Many of these festivals will also be running through Christmas!
Visit the Han River
Sure, you can visit the Han River at any time. However, hear me out on this one! Since most people will be spending the day inside (either at their homes or at other indoor activities), this is a fantastic time to enjoy the Han River.
Since Christmas is also a big couple’s day in Korea, the Han River is also a great date location if you are someone lucky enough to have one. There are a ton of activities along the Han River and it makes for a great way to enjoy Christmas.
If you are looking to make the most of the day and to enjoy the river in a more unique way, you can also book a Han River cruise. The cruises are actually very affordable, and these are a great way to experience the Han River in a way that you might not be used to. It also makes for a great date! Just make sure to dress warmly.
Conclusion – A Korean Christmas
Christmas in Korea is something that took me a few years to get used to. However, I’ve come to enjoy the day a lot, even if it’s not what I grew up used to. Christmas in Korea is a bit different to what you might be used to, but at the same time, fundamentally it is the same.
For travellers – if you are coming to Korea during Christmas, don’t worry! Unlike many western countries, much of Korea will keep running during Christmas. Most attractions and stores will remain open and many tours will still be running.
For those living in Korea – Christmas can feel like a lonely day if you aren’t with your family or in a relationship. However, even if you are alone it doesn’t mean that Christmas needs to be a sad day. There are so many activities that can be enjoyed, and some things that can only be enjoyed at Christmas.
Or… You could just be like me and enjoy playing games at home. However you choose to enjoy Christmas, I hope that you can make the most of the day and have a good time!
Christmas in Korea FAQ
Do Koreans Celebrate Christmas with Christmas Trees?
It depends on the family or person in question. Some families will put up Christmas trees, while others won’t. Some malls will also put up big Christmas trees both inside and outside!
Is Christmas Celebrated in Korea?
Yes! However, it generally isn’t as major of an event as it is in many western countries. Christmas is not a major Korean holiday and sits behind Chuseok and Seollal in importance.
Is Gift Giving on Christmas Important in Korea?
Gift giving does happen, but it’s generally on a small scale. Often only one gift will be given by a family and gifts are often money rather than items.
Will it Snow on Christmas?
While it is possible, it is unlikely. Unfortunately, it only snows on Christmas rarely.
Is Christmas a Big Holiday in Korea?
While Christmas is a national holiday in Korea, it isn’t considered a big holiday. Both Chuseok and Seollal are bigger and generally hold more importance.
Where Can I Buy Christmas Decorations in Seoul?
You will be able to find Christmas decorations at many stores in Seoul. However, the best place to find them is always Daiso!
How Cold Is Christmas in Korea?
Christmas Day in Korea is, on average, -4 degrees (Celsius). However, it can fluctuate between -10 degrees and 5 degrees.
What Is Open on Christmas Day?
Most big stores and attractions will remain open. Usually, only smaller (locally/family-owned) stores will close for Christmas.
Which Tourist Attractions are Open on Christmas?
You’re in luck – nearly all tourist attractions will remain open on Christmas!