First Christmas in America

file photo
file photo

First Christmas in America

by Hyemin Lee
Stripes Japan

With the holiday season upon us, I can’t help but think back to the first Christmas I spent in the U.S. as an international student.

During my time in California, I discovered many cultural differences between America and Korea when it came to Christmas.

Days before Christmas, one of my close friends from school gave me a present. I was so surprised because Koreans don’t usually exchange Christmas gifts.

It also surprised me how so many places sold Christmas trees in various sizes, and everyone seemed to have a decorated one at home. But in Korea, we don’t usually have Christmas trees at home. Instead, we enjoy seeing them in shopping malls or on famous streets. I wondered where Americans keep such a big tree during the rest of the year.

But the biggest difference is although Christmas is a national holiday in Korea, it is not a traditional holiday for family gatherings. So, when I asked my friends to hang out with me for Christmas, I was shocked that they all had plans to visit their families. All alone, I planned to celebrate Christmas by binging on holiday movies and delicious food and cake, but I didn’t know all the shops were going to be closed. While the whole world was warmly celebrating Christmas, it was the loneliest day for me as an international student without family there.

Throughout the years, Korea has been greatly influenced by the United States. After the liberation from Japan in 1945, the U.S. military government designated Christmas as a holiday in Korea. After Korea established its own government, President Syngman Rhee, a faithful Christian and a pro-American independence fighter against Japan who studied in the United States, designated Christmas as a national holiday.

For Koreans, most of whom are not Christian, Christmas is another commercialized day with many people roaming the streets until late evening. Yes, parents will give gifts from Santa to their young children and spend the day together. For young adults, it is a day to party with friends. But above all, Christmas is a romantic holiday for couples like Valentine’s Day.

If you’re single and plan to spend Christmas without a date, Koreans will look at you with pity. So, if you don’t have family in Korea and don’t have a date, grab your friends and wander Korea’s beautifully decorated streets in the evening!

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