Food History

In Korea, Christmas Isn't for Family; It's for Lovers

Fresh cream cakes saturate South Korean bakeries and homes in December—but not for the reasons you might think.

by:
December 12, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

In South Korea, as Christmas nears, the nation’s many singletons have been known to lament, “I want to go to sleep on the 22nd and wake up on the 26th.” It’s not to avoid trite family probing about nonexistent wedding bells around a roast ham. Rather, it’s because Christmas is a couples holiday, one more romantic than even Valentine’s Day in the States.

For Christmas, couples dine out at fancy restaurants with prix fixe menus and share sweet treats. Hotels promote special romantic package deals to the more amorous (and moneyed), while cheaper “love motels” will book up months in advance. There’s even a Galentine’s-style backlash to the heavily promoted romanticism—small circles of young single friends will gather in cramped studio apartments to throw “home parties” featuring finger foods, cream cakes from the bakery, and lots of group selfies.

Contrary to popular belief, Koreans don’t often celebrate Christmas as a family tradition. While department stores and public spaces set up lavish holiday spectacles to draw in customers, there are no sidewalks lined with fragrant trees waiting to adorn living rooms, nor stores hawking stockings to pack for the kids. The mass pilgrimage to gather with family is reserved for Chuseok, Korea’s harvest holiday earlier in the year. December is not even a time for rampant gift-giving since, shortly after, the New Year is eagerly celebrated with knelt bows in exchange for gifts of money from the elderly.

Fresh cream cake is a stalwart of the holidays in South Korea. Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

But Christmas is observed as a national holiday in South Korea, the only country in East Asia to do so. Though it doesn’t coincide with a winter break as it does in the States (schools actually end their school year in mid-January and then close for four to six weeks since the winter is harsher), the country does give workers the day off so pious churchgoers can attend Christmas services.

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“I just visited Seoul for the first time and I loved all the bakeries! We need to bring Paris Baguette to America. ”
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While statistics vary, about a quarter of South Korea’s current population identify as Christian. According to historian Michael Pembroke, the religion was first significantly evangelized in East Asia by Jesuit Francis Xavier, who traveled through Japan in 1550 and later to China to spread Catholicism. Christianity slowly started to make headway in the “hermit kingdom” of Korea via traveling Confucian scholar Yi Gwang-jeong and diplomat Yi Seung-hun. This enraged the Joseon king, who believed that the Christian idea of believing in one God subverted the Confucian practice of honoring the Crown as father above all else. Government-sanctioned persecutions and massacres throughout the country sent Catholicism underground.

Protestant missionaries were able to gain a more permanent foothold when Korea was officially forced open to Western trade following the Japanese Treaty of 1876. They were extremely successful in disseminating the religion by translating the Bible into Korean and offering services in the Korean language.

By the 1930s, Protestantism was the most popular religion in the country (though not the majority), and acted as a “nationalistic beacon” throughout the Japanese occupation that followed, particularly when Koreans were forced to observe Japanese Shinto shrine worship. During the Korean War, many Christians, mostly those living in North Korea, were forced south to flee Communist rule. Much of the Christian population became consolidated in South Korea, where it continued to flourish, coexisting with the previously predominant Buddhists and general atheists.

There are a few theories on why Christianity took off in Korea when it didn’t in China or Japan. While Confucian values were the foundation on which Korea was built, Michael E. Robinson, a Korean history professor at Indiana University, posited that Confucian filial piety was easily transferred to the idea of a single all-knowing deity, and the nation's inherent shamanistic beliefs laid a foundation for the practice of praying for favors. The church was also a direct tie to Western knowledge and education, making it especially enticing for a country dealing with deteriorating rural conditions.

Christianity particularly rooted itself as a pillar around which Korean immigrant communities in other places could be built. It became especially integral to South Korean immigrants coming into America, who would diligently erect churches as a communal space for Koreans to connect in a new city and build business networks. Eighty percent of Korean-Americans identify as Christian today. But while Christianity has become a bloodline connecting Koreans around the world today, Christmas did not connect back to families in the mother country.

While department stores and public spaces set up lavish holiday spectacles to draw in customers, there are no sidewalks lined with fragrant trees waiting to adorn living rooms, nor stores hawking stockings to pack for the kids.

Given Christianity’s short-lived history in Korea, most Christmas traditions were espoused through Western influence in commercialization and media. This naturally appealed to a younger generation, who were richer and more eager to spend on dating and romance. Christmas has therefore become heavily corporatized, similar to our Hallmark Valentine’s Day in America.

Today, Korean bakeries, popular on every street corner, promote ssaeng-cream cakes, light sponges iced with fresh whipped cream and decorated with Rudolph-red strawberries and white-chocolate Santas. These festive cakes are the literal cake emoji that represents it, making it the perfect Christmas treat to share as a couple—or maybe just by oneself between the 22nd and the 26th.

Have you ever had this cake? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Mclaires
    Mclaires
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    Cassia Charles
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    Tricia smith
Irene runs a monthly Brooklyn-based pop-up series called Yooeating, with new takes on Korean home cooking, street food, and drinking culture by pairing with other culinary cuisines that feel like home.

4 Comments

Mclaires December 16, 2019
Very interesting article, thank you! I just visited Seoul for the first time and I loved all the bakeries! We need to bring Paris Baguette to America.
 
marilu December 25, 2019
We’ve got Paris Baguette in the Korean markets here in Southern California. Wish you could be here for us to share some cakes together!
 
Cassia C. December 25, 2019
Paris Baguette is all over New York City.
 
Tricia S. February 20, 2020
Georgia - I had the chance to visit a Paris Baguette location there during Christmas a few years ago. It was a huuuuuge delight to discover it.