(An Irish) Christmas in Korea

Christmas isn’t a very big holiday in Korea. It’s celebrated more along the lines of Valentine’s Day: couple’s give each other gifts and go out for dinner. But the story of Santa Claus has spread to the children of Korea, as I learned from my co-teacher, who was rushing to buy her 3- and 5-year-old sons a gift from Santa on the 24th.

But the department stores in Korea would have you believe Christmas was just as big here as it is back home. Walking around downtown Ulsan almost felt like a trip back to the States, with the Lotte and Hyundai Department Stores’ competing giant Christmas trees.

Christmas Lights in Ulsan

Christmas Lights in Ulsan
Hyundai’s tree had dripping icicle lights, so I think it won.

I was in school up until the morning of the 24th, when the students were let off for their Winter vacation (which corresponds to summer vacation in the States – when they return, they’ll start a new school year). But before they left, I got a couple of Christmas cards, including this drawing of Mario and Luigi from a third grader.
A Christmas picture from a 3rd grader
I thought this was cute, because they love to play this Mario PowerPoint English game in class.

A Christmas Card from one of my 4th graders

A group of fourth grade boys even gave me a Christmas present! It’s a cup half filled with chicken, and half with soda (they’re separated by a plastic barrier, so don’t worry, your chicken doesn’t get all soggy).
Christmas present from some 4th graders

After school on the 24th, I went to an end-of-the-semester dinner with my main teacher crew – one of my co-teachers and the fifth grade home room teachers. We went to a shabu restaurant, where we cooked a bunch of red meat, seafood and vegetables together in a big soup pot. As my co-workers were cutting up a baby octopus with the traditional pair of scissors, my mind was already on the next phase of my holiday: taking the high-speed KTX train to Daegu to search for pumpkin pie at Costco.

Yes, there are Costco’s in Korea. Quite a few. Around Thanksgiving, the rumor was you could find pumpkin pie there. I missed out, and was really hoping to find one for Christmas. But first, I went out for Christmas Eve dinner with some friends at a popular foreigner restaurant, The Holy Grill.

My first hummus in months!
Christmas Eve Dinner in Korea: hummus and pita, half of a vegetarian burrito, and a pint of the locally-brewed Alley Kat Pale Ale. Yummmmmm.

Costco turned out to be a gigantic disappointment, as there were no pumpkin pies to be found. There were, however, Costco-sized apple pies, of which we bought two.

We then headed to the train station to catch a train to Gumi, where we would be celebrating Christmas in my friend Dave’s gigantic three-bedroom apartment. But the next train to Gumi wasn’t for another hour, and so we spent the rest of Christmas Eve in Daegu’s train station, watching a big group of carolers sing and dance to Koreanized versions of Christmas songs.

It was everyone’s first Christmas away from their families, and we were quite determined to prepare a good dinner. They’re not big on turkeys in Korea, but some friends in Daegu found a place that was selling them to foreigners for the holiday.

The turkey
Complete with stuffing, gravy, and a can of cranberry sauce! Just like home.

Upon the arrival of the turkey, we realized Dave only had one butter knife in his apartment. Luckily, stores are open on Christmas in Korea and so finding a knife up to the turkey-carving task wasn’t too difficult. No one had carved a turkey before, but we managed quite well.
The carving of the turkey

We also prepared a bunch of vegetables and mashed potatoes. I was quite proud of the spread we put together.
Christmas dinner

Seated on the floor around the table to enjoy Christmas dinner (this is Korea, after all).
Christmas dinner!

This was my first turkey in about five years, since I’ve opted out as a vegetarian at the past several holidays. I have to say it was pretty delicious!

As I was at my Irish friend’s apartment, Christmas was celebrated with Jameson, Guinness, Bailey’s, and Irish coffees (in addition to soju)…
Christmas in Gumi!

…as well as a ‘Christmas pudding.’ Apparently it’s tradition to light the Christmas pudding on fire. We soaked it in Jameson, but unfortunately couldn’t get it to light.
The Christmas pudding

And so I spent Christmas in Korea eating and drinking, and eating, and eating(far too much eating). And so, even with the flaming Christmas pudding instead of the pumpkin pie, and soju in place of wine, Christmas in Korea felt quite a bit like Christmas at home.

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