From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."


Christmas in Korea

This year was the second time I spent the holiday season in Korea, and how I wish I had spent it in the Philippines instead. There’s nothing like Christmas in a country that celebrates the LONGEST Christmas (and New Year).

A few hours before Christmas Eve, I was still at work. I noticed that none of my colleagues were in a hurry to get home. It was Christmas Eve, but there were no Christmas lights flickering outside houses and buildings, no Christmas songs to be heard. The streets were quiet and dull. Malls closed early, as usual, so you wouldn’t see anyone rushing about to do last-minute Christmas shopping.

Earlier in class, I asked my students how they would celebrate Christmas, and it was a bit disappointing to hear answers such as: “I will play computer games; I will watch TV; I will sleep; I will do my homework; Nothing.” Another question I posed was, “Are you excited about Christmas?’ While most of the students answered, “Yes, I am” (or “Yes, I do” before I corrected them), there were but a few who said, “No, I’m not”. I wrote a sentence pattern on the board which read, “I’m excited about Christmas, because __________./ I’m not excited about Christmas, because __________.” Most of the answers were “because I will get a present; I will not go to school (It’s the beginning of winter vacation.); I will go to the amusement park/go shopping with Mom and Dad.” Those who said they’re not excited gave me either kunyang or “nothing special” for an answer. I couldn’t help but feel sad for my students who thought of Christmas as another ordinary day.

To get the children into the spirit of Christmas, I introduced Christmas vocabulary to them through a game. Some of the words were already familiar to them, and they could say them in English by looking at picture cards, but though they know the terms and their meanings, to them, they are JUST words… nothing special about a Christmas tree, a wreath, a candy cane, a star, the nativity, baby Jesus, Santa Claus, his elves, his reindeer, his sleigh.


I was told that Christmas in Korea is usually celebrated by young couples. On December 25th, Tuesday, I went to the bar where my husband works and most of their customers were indeed young couples. In fact, it didn’t seem like Christmas. It   looked like Valentine’s Day. My husband and I were even joking about motels being full that night. It’s not that Korean families don’t celebrate Christmas. Some do, especially families with children. Their celebration, however, is not as extravagant as our celebration in the Philippines or in majority of Western countries. In South Korea, family gatherings on Christmas Eve are not commonly held at homes. Most families prefer to eat out and go shopping with their kids on Christmas Day. Parents buy their children new clothes or new toys. Some grandparents give money to the little ones just like on Chuseok or Seollal (Thanksgiving Day or New Year in Korea). Amusement parks are also one of the favorite destinations. Instead of turkey, ham, eggnog or pie, Koreans have Christmas cake. Most of the customers who came to the bar on Christmas were bringing beautifully decorated Christmas cakes, which explains why there was no cake left for me to buy in Paris Baguette.


I was expecting heavy traffic on our way to Seoul on Christmas, but I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of cars. There were more cars on the way to the shopping center in Guri two days before the occasion. Families were doing their Christmas shopping a bit late, unlike in the Philippines where Christmas shopping begins as early as September. I don’t like spending the holiday season in Korea, but I like shopping here at this time of the year. There are a lot of brands on sale, and they are sold in unbelievably low prices. In fact, my husband, who detests shopping, bought more things than I did, including my present. He got me a pair of Daks leather gloves.


In the Philippines, I used to get tons of presents from family and friends, as well as from work, but in Korea, a simple gift from my husband will suffice. The truth is, it’s not really the gift that matters, but knowing that you are not forgotten on a special day. I love giving gifts on Christmas, though, more than I love getting them. Seeing my loved ones smile as they open their presents gives me so much joy.

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I was expecting a different Christmas this year, but my husband had to go to work on the 25th. We couldn’t do anything special together on Christmas Eve, but we exchanged greetings through text messaging, and as he always does, he called a few minutes before midnight. I spent my Christmas Eve in the room, watching movies on my computer, answering my husband’s messages and my Mom’s calls. Talking to Mom and the rest of the family back home made me more nostalgic, and then hubby sent another message saying it was a “White Christmas”. That sad song kept reverberating in my head as I was looking out the window, watching the snow fall.

I didn’t want to welcome any negative feelings on Christmas, so I kept myself busy watching Grimm and NCIS. (They’re better than movies.) I fixed a cup of my favorite milk tea and ate a Christmas-tree-shaped cookie that I bought a few days ago and almost forgot to eat.


Two years ago, after our wedding in Korea, my husband and I decided to go to the Philippines to spend Christmas there.  It was not his first Christmas in the Philippines, but it was his first time to celebrate it the Filipino way. He had been looking forward to it. We also invited his relatives, who came to the Philippines with us, to come to our house and celebrate with my family. They enjoyed the food Mom cooked and the children were excited when I handed them treats in a stocking. After dinner, the children had to leave, because they were tired and sleepy. We were told that they are not used to staying up until midnight even on Christmas Eve.


Some parents in Korea follow the tradition of stuffing their kids’ stockings with treats or putting presents under the Christmas tree for the children to open in the morning.


My husband told me that when he was a little boy, his parents used to prepare presents for him and his brothers on Christmas, but when they no longer believed in Santa Halabeoji (Santa Claus is called ‘Grandfather Santa’ in Korea.), their parents stopped giving them gifts. That ended their celebration of Christmas. Until they became adults, Christmas passed just like any other day.


When I asked my students what gifts they received on Christmas, I realized that money as Christmas present is quite common in Korea, especially from elders. Some of them got toys, clothes, candies and chocolates. Some got none. I was wrong to ask everybody in class what presents they got. I should have thought about those children whose parents were either too busy or not thoughtful enough to prepare a little something for their kids on Christmas. Isn’t Christmas one of the most awaited time of the year for children around the world? It broke my heart to see the sad little faces of those who said they didn’t get anything or do anything special on Christmas. I tried to console them by giving them candies which are actually given to “Superstars” (most active students of the day), but candies can do very little to comfort a disappointed child.


One of my smartest students in class told me that he and his two “big sisters” were alone in the house on Christmas Eve, because his parents were working. Another student said she wished her Mom had not given her any gift. When I asked her what gift Mommy gave her, she said they are two Math workbooks, and Mom said she has to finish them in a month! How cruel can that be?

My husband said he used to be lonely on Christmas, when he wanted to go out with his friends, but they were all busy having dates with their girlfriends. He added that Christmas is “couple’s day” in Korea. Come on… there are too many couple’s days here, but only one Children’s Day and no Family Day at all? Christmas is for children, for families, for everybody, and it’s not supposed to be a typical day, it’s a day to be celebrated and shared and enjoyed, that’s why on the 25th, we say, “MERRY Christmas!”.


Money as Gift in South Korea

Is money an appropriate gift?

Last week, I celebrated my birthday in South Korea for the third time. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law gave me money as gift. Last year, besides my in-laws, some of my husband’s male friends also gave me cash. If it had been in the Philippines, I would be reluctant to accept the money, especially from friends, as it is not very common in my country to give cash as present on someone’s birthday.

It is not a taboo, but if you give someone money instead of a gift, the person you are giving the money to may feel that you lack effort or have not given any thought to choosing and buying the right present for him. (Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the money I received on my birthday, but even after 3 years of getting cash instead of a “real gift”, I haven’t gotten used to Korea’s idea of what “the most appropriate gift” is.)

Money is the easiest gift to give. You don’t have to spend hours looking for what item the person you are giving a gift to needs or wants. Although it is not rude to give money, (Some people may actually prefer it.^^) it is an obvious lack of interest and thoughtfulness on the giver’s part. It’s just like saying, “Okay, I don’t have the time to shop for  a gift for you, so I’m giving you cash. Buy whatever you please with it.”

We Filipinos give a great deal to the quote: It’s the thought that counts. We appreciate it more when a person, especially a friend or a family member who knows us well, gives us a present that most likely took a great deal of thought. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple or inexpensive thing. A sincere and carefully chosen gift will surely make us smile.

However, in some occasions, like weddings and Christening Parties, some guests may give cash instead of presents. On Christmas and New Year, adults usually give children money. It is Filipino tradition for godparents to give their godchildren aguinaldo (gift or money), especially during the Christmas season.

When my husband and I had our second wedding ceremony in the Philippines, most of my friends and relatives gave us cash in envelopes, instead of the usual wedding gifts like appliances, bathroom items or toiletries and arinola (chamber pot). (Thank goodness, nobody gave us a chamber pot. They say it brings good fortune to a newlywed couple… but puh-lease… a chamber pot???) Because my husband and I were going abroad and we would not be able to bring “bigger gifts” with us, money was more useful.

Nowadays, Filipino wedding gifts include significant amounts of money the couple could use to begin a new life together, honeymoon packages, and jewelry from wealthy guests. (Why didn’t we get a honeymoon package? T.T)

In South Korea, money is the most preferred gift. In fact, it is MANDATORY to give money when you attend a Korean wedding. As a guest, you should register at the front of the wedding hall and hand in your gift of cash in an envelope (with your name written on it) to the family member or friend in charge of the registration. There is one guest book for the groom, and another for the bride. If you are the groom’s guest, you should give the money to the one in charge of his guest book; if you are the bride’s guest, you should give the cash to the one in charge of her guest book. The amount given is recorded in the 방명록 (guest book), along with your name.

On a baby’s first birthday, 돌 or 돌잔치, (dol or doljanchi), money is also the most favored gift. If you want to be more generous, you can give  a 24-karat gold ring instead of money. Tiny rings as gifts for dol are available in any jewelry shop in Korea.

If you will be attending a Korean wedding or dol ALONE, and you are not a close friend of the family, you can give 30, 000 to 50, 000 KRW (25.70 to 42.84 USD) (1111.51 to 1852.52 PHP). Never give 40, 000 KRW, as “4” is considered a bad number. My husband and I always give 100, 000 KRW (85.68 USD) (3705.03 PHP) to an acquaintance, and 150, 000 KRW (128.52 USD) (5557.55) to a not-so-close friend. To a close friend or a family member, we give more… not because we want to, but because that’s what we are “expected” to do. The truth is, I don’t like attending Korean weddings and dol anymore, unless the family who invited us is a very close friend or one of my husband’s family members. The only time I was ever happy in giving cash as gift here in Korea was on my brother-in-law’s wedding. Of course we gave more than what we usually give to friends, but it felt right, because my brother-in-law and his wife are very important to me and my husband… they’re more like best friends. (If I had more money, I would have given them more. ^^)

In the Philippines, I enjoy attending weddings and first birthdays because I am not burdened by the amount of money I have to give as a gift. Of course, I will still spend money for a present. (I love shopping for and giving presents.) The thing is, whatever present I give will surely be appreciated… and the value of my thoughtfulness is what will count the most… not the cost of the present nor the amount of money I put in an envelope that bears my name.

I have spent too much on some gifts for people I truly care about, and it feels good when I know that they like the gift I bought, but here in SK, I have never felt my gift “appreciated” that way, because it’s always the same thing.  There’s no element of surprise on the receivers’ part because they know it’s “cash”, and it’s most probably as much as what the other guests give.

It’s definitely “NOT the thought that counts” here.

Every time my husband and I attend a wedding or dol in Korea, we always discuss “money”. The amount of money you give as a gift actually depends on how close you are to the couple getting married or the parents of the child having his first birthday, but my husband is too generous that he wants to give more even to a mere acquaintance. He says that in Korean tradition, the amount you give will be returned to you when you’re the one having the wedding or it’s your child who’s having the dol. This is what guest books are for. Koreans keep their guest books, so that they can check the amount each person has given them, and when they are invited to a special occasion wherein they have to give money, they make it a point to give the same amount the inviter has given them. As one of my Korean colleagues in the 학원 (academy) puts it: “It’s more like investment.”

I get the whole idea. I understand why money is such an essential gift in Korean weddings and other big occasions. Korean weddings and dol are very costly, and the money that the guests give help pay for all the expenses. Giving cash as gift is actually practical, but putting so much value on the amount of money instead of the giver’s sincerity and thoughtfulness in giving what he has or can give is not the real purpose of gift-giving.

Sometimes I tell my husband: “Every time we attend a wedding or dol, why does it feel as if we ‘pay’ for the food we eat… and sometimes we pay even more?”

He just smiles and says: “They also ‘paid’ on our wedding day.”

Yup, our guests did… but the money never touched my hands nor my husband’s. They were given to the parents-in-law to help pay for wedding expenses. Oops! Don’t fret, if you are going to have a Korean wedding soon. This is perfectly normal in South Korea. You can keep the money from pyebaek (Korean traditional wedding custom), though, but it’s not going to be much.