My Christmas Eve in Korea

Nativity scene by Sogang University’s main gate

This Christmas marked the very first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from family. Not the first I’ve spent away from home, mind you, but the first time to spend the Christmas season completely away from my loved ones.

Not that I’m not enjoying my time in Korea! Because I really am, but to me, Christmas will always be the family all getting together to celebrate on Christmas Eve with a meatless 12-dish traditional Ukrainian meal.

Thanks to one of my great friends here, Hyeon-jin, I got to experience a Korean Catholic church service. Hyeon-jin is one of my friends that I started meeting to do language exchanges. After one of our meetings I mentioned that I was looking for a 성당 (Catholic Church) for the Christmas Eve mass and Hyeon-jin eagerly invited me to join hers for the night. When I asked if my friend Silvia from class could attend as well she said ‘the more, the better!’. She also invited us to come to the performances that were occurring before mass.

So at 7:15pm, on December 24th (십이월 이십사일) Hyeon-jin gathered both of us at exit 3 of Itaewon Station and lead us to her church (Hannamdong Church – 한남동 성당), which was ~15 minutes away by walking.  한남동 (Hannamdong) is the area where the church is located.

Christmas lights in Itaewon

The performances were so cute! The first group included a class of boys and girls probably all under the age of 8 who were dressed up in angel wings and halos, carrying electric candles. They did a super cute dance to what I assume was a Korean version of a Christmas song. There was also a little kpop dance group composed of the middle school aged children (including Hyeon-jin’s younger sister). They danced to a BAP song and a small portion of Psy’s uber popular song ‘Gangnam Style’. I had kind of assumed moving to Korea that ‘Gangnam Style’ wouldn’t be as popular as it was overseas, since it had been out so much longer. Not the case as it would appear. The whole audience went wild watching!  It was so much fun!

After the kpop dancing, there was a very traditional song sung by a choir of older women and men who were dressed in gorgeous hanbok for the women and suits for the men. My favourite part of the presentations was when a mixed age group came together and sang ‘Edelweiss’ (if you’re uncertain as to what this song is…firstly you need to go out and watch The Sound of Music. Secondly, here’s a link to the song if you need a refresher.). It was completely in English, which made me squeal in delight because there were a couple of ~5 year old girls in the front doing their best English accents ^^ Silvia and I both sang along softly from the back. Me thinks a Sound of Music viewing is going to have to happen before my winter break is over.

After the presentations we had a short break before mass started. Hyeon-jin introduced us to one of her friends from the church and we sat around talking in a mix of Korean and English (very, VERY basic Korean on our parts and considerably better English on their’s).

The mass was an hour and a half and ran from 10pm until 11:30pm. Neither Silvia or I had too much of a clue as to what was being said, but we tried to follow along the best we could. We were even able to sing along with the rest of the church for the responses and for the hymns. It was good practice for my verbal reading of hangul. It hit a happy place when a few of the hymns we sang were the Korean versions of the same ones we would have sung back at home (an example would be the song on page 107…I forgot to write out what it was called in Korean, but it was definitely ‘Angels we have heard on high’).  A neat feature of the service, was that almost everyone of the middle-aged to older woman of the congregation wore a short white lace vein on top of their heads, something akin to a Spanish mantilla.  I had never seen this before in any of the services I’ve ever been to.  When I asked Hyeon-jin about this, she said the woman wore it to show respect to Mary.

The alter at Hannamdong Church

Once mass was over, Hyeon-jin spoke quickly with her family and then hurried back to Silvia and I and asked if we would like to go out to eat with her family before going home. We were so shocked that they invited us. They took us to a Japanese restaurant that was run by one of their cousins in Gangnam.

It was a fun hour and a half. The party included both myself and Silvia, Hyeon-jin, her mother and father (to which they introduced themselves as 어마 and 아빠 – mom and dad, respectively), her younger sister (아기, which means ‘baby’) and her older brother (오빠 – older brother) who is actually in training to be a priest and was active during the mass.

The restaurant served amazing food that just kept coming! We had tofu salad, agedashi tofu, karaage [Japanese fried chicken], tempura oysters with mustard sauce, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, and finally a seafood ramen. I wish I would have taken some pictures, but we were all so enthralled with the food that I forgot to snap some.  The mother was very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to eat the noodles with  젓가락 (chopsticks) ^^

By the end of the meal, it was already 1:30am and it had started to snow! Hyeon-jin’s younger sister was super excited and their mother commented on how it was a ‘White Christmas’ ^^ They were so cute!  According to the news I read the next day, it was also the first white Christmas in 10 years!!  Figures…I brought some of the snow with me from Saskatchewan 😉

After we were all finished eating, they insisted on driving us home instead of letting us take taxis (the subway closes after midnight in Seoul). It was so nice of them! Because it would take a long time to take both of us at the same time, Silvia left with 어마 and the brother, while I went with 아빠, Hyeon-jin and her sister. I can’t emphaise enough how nice their entire family was. We spent the entire meal talking and joking. It  was a lot of fun. Even when we were getting close to my place I offered for them to let me off at the 대흥육 (Daeheung Station) and I could walk the last five minutes so they wouldn’t have to go more out of their way, but he insisted on driving straight to doorstep. As I got out to leave, all three members got out of the car to say good night and Merry Christmas (메리크리스마스).

So, even with my family being 8775.75 km away, it was nice to be included with a family on Christmas Eve.

Sorry for the lack of pictures, I didn’t want to be disrespectful taking any during the mass, and afterwards it was too dark for any to turn out.

Happy Holidays everyone! Till next time ^^

P.S. A bonus picture for my mum…See?!  Even when I’m three-quarters the way around the globe, I still get all dressed up for church ^^

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