on…Christmas and Christians

Posted: 17/03/2011 in History
Tags: , , ,

“The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.” – “On Christmas,” Generally Speaking G.K Chesterton


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Many people have asked me about Christmas in Korea, and also about religion. I can talk about Christmas but the religion question I will leave for later, it’s too complicated and I don’t fully understand it myself yet. However, I can say that about 20 to 30 percent of Koreans are Christian, usually Presbyterian. I live in the city were the first Catholic Martyrs were executed, as a result there is a small but unique and impressive Cathedral and a larger Catholic community than other places in Korea.


I woke up feeling pretty sprightly on Christmas morn, it was just before 8 when I got my breakfast and checked on Cricket news. Unfortunately my Internet was being fickle and didn’t want me to know about how England would destroy the Baggy Greens in Melbourne, I eventually gave up and looked out of the window to gage the weather. It was bright and sunny with that nice crisp freshness you get here. I figured that my Internet breaking down was an omen to venture into Jeonju and see what happens at Christmas. I was a bit worried that everywhere would be dead as it is a public holiday, it was definitely quieter than usual on the roads but most shops seemed to be open and people were milling about like normal. I cut through one of the neighbourhoods to avoid waiting at the numerous traffic lights on the main road. It’s always funny going through the blue collar type neighbourhoods because I always catch people by surprise, they don’t expect to see Westerners in such places. I suppose if you mostly get taxis and buses then you may miss some of the smaller neighbourhoods in between the main streets. These places seemed a little strange and intimidating at first but as I have ventured into them I feel more at home on each visit. I descended the hill and instead of carrying on into the down town area like usual, I took a left and headed for the traditional area of Jeonju, this place is called the Hanok Village as the traditional type of architecture is the Hanok house.


Hanoks are perhaps what you would expect from East Asia, small solid structures with sloping roofs and elaborate tiles which protrude from the corners, think village in Last Samurai or royal chambers in Crouching Tiger and you’re nearly there. In the Western imagination all Oriental people live in places like this, crouching down eating rice and practising ancient Martial Arts. In reality most people, at least in Korea live in High Rise apartment complexes. Although the Hanok village is a wonderful place with many quaint touristy things to do, I have already seen the place and my detour was not for tourism. The reason I chose to go through this area was to visit the Cathedral, Jeondong Catholic Cathedral to give it it’s full name. My intention was simply to nip in and out to soak up the Christmas spirit and remember that this festival does have a reason other than buying things and over eating. I am the kind of person who would simply ignore Christmas if I was an atheist. I celebrate Christmas in the same way I don’t celebrate Eid or Rosh Hashana, pretty logical, pretty simple. For this simple reason I felt it necessary to visit the church if only for 5 minutes or so; this was not to be the case.




I was sitting outside the Cathedral to see whether or not it might be wiser to wait for the mass to finish, it was about 11 ‘o clock at the time. I noticed that the car park was full and I heard some quite angelic singing from within. Some of the tourists were going in and out with their cameras so with some trepidation I decided to go in, I wasn’t intending on staying for very long because I cannot speak Korean so the mass would be lost on me. As I got into the church I shuffled around at the back unable to get a clear view of proceedings because there were tourists jostling about. For some reason, perhaps my Roman face or the halo round my head, a nun homed in on me and grabbed me (in the nicest possible way), in the language of gesturing  I understood that she wanted to ascertain whether I wanted a seat in the stalls. Caught up in the moment and not wanting to run away from the kindly nun I let her lead me about halfway down the aisle on the left and she shuffled some old lady further down and gave me a place behind a rather solid looking column. After a pause and a deep breath I settled into my seat and tried to correlate the responses and Amens with my memories of Church. I realised that we were leading up to the readings. I think that this experience was my first ‘culture shock’, this is ironic in the extreme as I am more familiar with the Catholic Church than anything else in my Korean surroundings. I think it was this very familiarity which made things appear so strange. The clothes, intonation of the priest, stations of the cross, hymns and countless other things were familiar enough to give me a heavy case of déjà vu but these familiar things were simply a veneer over something completely alien. As I looked around I realised that there were only 4 other ‘Westerners’, a family actually. Everybody else in the church was Korean. About 99% of the women were wearing the white lace headscarf, I have seen this a couple of times in Italy, but on this occasion it was pretty much every woman in the church. I had a look for evidence about why women should cover their heads and men should remove hats, I found this:


1 Corinthians 11:1-17:
Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you. But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ: and the head of the woman is the man: and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered disgraceth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered disgraceth her head: for it is all one as if she were shaven. For if a woman be not covered, let her be shorn. But if it be a shame to a woman to be shorn or made bald, let her cover her head. The man indeed ought not to cover his head: because he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man [c.f. Genesis 2-3]. For the man was not created for the woman: but the woman for the man. Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels. But yet neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so also is the man by the woman: but all things of God. You yourselves judge. Doth it become a woman to pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you that a man indeed, if he nourish his hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the Church of God [i.e., if anyone want to complain about this, we have no other way of doing things, this is our practice; all the churches believe the same way]. Now this I ordain: not praising you, that you come together, not for the better, but for the worse.



That clears it up for me.

I was sitting in an area of mostly older woman and I felt conspicuously tall. In general Koreans are not particularly short in stature, I believe they may be on average the tallest nation in Asia, but I think the older generation may be shorter on account of diet and living conditions. In their youth Korea was a developing nation and the hardship of war and famine played its part on diet and nutrition. It’s only the last 20 years that have seen Korea progress steadily through the quality of life index and thus have the money to afford a high protein diet .


The mass itself was starting to feel more familiar and most things seemed the same, the biggest shock came when the priest offered the sign of peace, I could have worked out that they may bow instead of shaking hands but it caught me off-guard. I did a full 360 degrees round of bowing until a woman in the next row did a double check and upon realising I wasn’t Korean she grabbed my hand and gave me an extremely sincere handshake and smile. The only other strange thing was the people giving out the Eucharist wore white gloves like traffic police. Upon receiving the holy wafer each member of the congregation bows instead of making the sign of the cross. There was a small presentation at the end for some reason, a few medals were given out and then as things drew to a close the headscarf went into pockets and people started leaving. When I got back outside the kindly nun who had ushered me into the service saw me readying myself to leave but she quickly got me by the elbow and took me to where they were serving tea. I had some tea with her and she asked me a couple of questions, her English was good enough for basic questioning, this is rare as older Koreans don’t usually speak any English. I suppose with Catholicism in an Eastern country, the door opens up many other aspects of Western Civilisation, such as speaking English. The whole experience was very positive and I will always remember my Christmas in Korea.


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