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Even with many Christians, S. Korea holiday is low-key

SEOUL — From any peak in the city, the neon crosses of Christian churches dot the skyline.

Unlike in Japan, where only a small percentage of the population is classified as Christian, about 49 percent of South Koreans are Christians. The next largest religion is Buddhism at 47 percent; smaller percentages are Confucists and Shamanists.

Christmas Day will bring Christians to Mass in celebration of the birth of Jesus. But the holiday fanfare is more subdued in South Korea than in the United States, where, after Halloween, one is hard-pressed to avoid a carol or a decorated tree.

Kim Heui-jin, 24, of Seoul said she is not a Christian and will spend the holiday with her sister and eat some good food. She prepared a few gifts for her parents and sent Christmas cards to several friends.

“It doesn’t mean a lot to me,” Kim said. “It’s just fun.”

South Korean offices sometimes have small, decorated trees. Department stores often decorate with lights and even the city of Seoul put up a huge Christmas tree near City Hall.

The Western commercial aspect of Christmas has spread to South Korea, albeit less intensely than in America.

Far fewer images exist of the fat white guy cavorting around in his red suit. Some Korean parents tell their children about Santa Claus, but the story is much less prevalent than in the United States. Gift giving is typically more low-key.

Chusok — also known as Korean Thanksgiving — is a huge family holiday in September in which entire families get together and praise ancestors while gorging on mounds of food.

Christmas, however, is a more private affair in South Korea. People may choose to spend time with immediate families, boyfriends or girlfriends — an opportunity to thank those closest.

Kwon Soon-yong planned on drinking with his friends on Tuesday. On Christmas, the 27-year-old will go out to eat with his family.

“It’s a different holiday than other holidays,” Kwon said. “It’s something special.”

“Christmas is a time to be with loved ones, preferably those of blood ties, and whether the activity of choice is watching a classic holiday movie, attending a party or just having a quiet eve in, the aim is to carry it out in a familial company,” read an article in Friday’s Korea Herald titled “Korean Christmas: Just Another Day for Lovers.”

“The most striking difference of all is the fact that Christmas in Korea is an occasion designated for shopping, drinking and young love,” the article said.

— Choe Song-won contributed to this report.


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