Maspeth living room is transformed into a Thanksgiving
dining room that can seat visiting family. Tribune
photo By Brian M. Rafferty
Focus Lies In Spirit Of The Holiday
By Juliet Werner
The Japanese occupation of Korea, which spanned from 1910-1945, had a singularly significant impact on the country's religious makeup. Forced into emperor worship by the Japanese, Koreans ceased thinking of Christianity as the most threatening of foreign religions. On a certain level, Christianity served to unite Koreans and promote feelings of nationalism.
In the years following the Korean War, Christians living in the north fled to the south. And with economic development came the assumption that financial success was an outgrowth of Christian faith.
Christianity has only become more popular in recent decades. And as of a 2005 government census, 18 percent of the population was Protestant and 10 percent Catholic.
Find yourself in Seoul on any given Sunday and you can attend one of Yoido Full Gospel Church's six services. With more than 830,000 members, it's the largest church in the world.
Christmas in Korea
South Korea, unlike any other country in East Asia, recognizes Christmas as a public holiday. Shopkeepers decorate their windows; radio DJ's play Korean versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night," And Korean children visit with Santa Haraboji or Grandfather Santa.
Korean people dress in Santa suits, accompanied by fake reindeer, but in renderings he resembles the American Santa.
"Santa's still a big, fat white guy," coordinator of youth programs at the Queens YWCA Angela Baek said.
Baek, who moved to America at age 8, grew up in a Buddhist family in Korea. She fondly remembers decorating a Christmas tree.
Her coworker Chris Yi moved to the United States when he was 2, but talks regularly with friends in Korea. He said that non-Christians are very much loyal to the holiday.
"They celebrate Christmas just so they celebrate something," Yi said. "Koreans here tend to be more religious."
YWCA Program Coordinator Katie Kim has less festive memories of Christmas in Korea.
"Parents don't have a day off," she said. "They usually just give a gift and go to work."
Yi insisted that nowadays Koreans are copying the American approach to the holiday.
"They want to be like here," Yi said. "They want to be modern. They embrace commercialism more than any other religious undertone."
He recognized, however, one major difference.
"It's more of a couple thing," he said. "Almost like a Valentine's Day."
Kim vividly recalls her first Christmas in America. She was living in Los Angeles and pursuing a graduate degree at UCLA.
"I went out shopping and every shop was closed," Kim said. "I had nothing to do. I was pretty shocked."
Christmas is a major shopping day in Korea, she said, and all the department stores have sales.
"Christmas here is more like a family event," she said. In Korea, the nuclear family is generally sufficient for the Christmas holiday. It isn't until the New Year that people travel to see extended family.
Coming To America
Koreans started coming to America in large numbers as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished quotas limiting the number of Asians that could enter the country. Today the majority of Koreans living in America, 80 percent, are Protestant or Roman Catholic
Baek became a Christian after moving America. She found herself drawn to the church.
"That's where a lot of things happen - like networking," Baek said. "There's youth group, Sunday school - that's where Korean people meet."
Yi is a youth pastor at a Methodist Church in Flushing.
"A lot of them don't have family here," Yi said. "They're here to study and learn English. Church is their family."
As of 2005, there were 250 evangelical Korean churches in Queens. There are five Korean Presbyterian Churches in Flushing alone. Yuon Lee is one of six pastors at the Korean-American Presbyterian Church on Franklin Avenue.
Lee said a large effort is made by his congregants to give to charity around Christmastime. In the first week of December, "Baskets of Love," complete with candy and fruit, are assembled and then distributed by middle and high school students to nursing homes.
The Church serves 5,000 congregants, requiring four separate services on Sundays. There are four very active choirs, which in past years have performed Handel's "Messiah" at Carnegie Hall.
Lee remains connected to the Korean version of Christmas. He said he misses seeing churchgoers dressed in traditional Hanbok, Korean festive garb. In his own home, he makes an effort to emphasize the religiosity of the holiday; his family does not decorate a Christmas tree.
"It doesn't have any relevance to Christianity," he said. "We sing Christmas songs and share devotional books I am teaching my children you can change this tradition. You can redeem Christmas."