Christmas had come once again and, as was tradition I told my wife it just didn’t feel like Christmas. Once again she asked what exactly I meant by that, and again I said I didn’t really know.
By Northeast Asian standards, South Koreans are a largely Christian lot, and they tend to take it pretty seriously. Seoul is home to the world’s largest Christian congregation, with over a million members, and churches absolutely everywhere (there were at least ten visible from our apartment building). Korea does all the usual western Christmassy stuff, if perhaps not always to the same extent.
Seoul storefronts are adorned with lights and Christmas trees. Skinny Korean Santas roam the shopping centres. Home Alone, Love Actually and Die Hard are all playing on TV… Something intangible – that thing westerners call ‘Christmas Spirit’ just seems to be missing.
Of course, there’s nothing right or wrong about South Korean Christmas. Cultural differences are just that. After all, my American friends have trouble picturing an Australian Christmas, with its outdoor barbeques, cold beer and afternoons at the beach. I mean… the Australian pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, endured in sweltering heat, when millions of frazzled consumers pay no mind to the fact that throughout the nation’s malls Bing Crosby inexplicably continues to dream of a White Christmas? That makes no sense at all.
Anyway, as we all know, Christmas is a time for family; a time to reflect and celebrate the birth of a man who was “…nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change” (Douglas Adams).
Personally I’m not a fan of organised religion, but that’s just me. The last time I had set foot in a place of worship was when my future father-in-law took me to see a 900-year-old Orthodox Church near a mountain village in eastern Serbia. He and the church-guy (I didn’t know his title) were horrified when I turned my back on the Lord by failing to walk out of the church backward. Future wife explained that I didn’t know. I was quite embarrassed and attempted to go back in, so as to exit correctly, but they said it was fine.
My wife is also not actively religious, so it was for something completely different that this Christmas my family and I accepted an invitation to attend morning mass at the Gumho Central Presbyterian Church in Seoul.
Our friend, the director of the church choir, met us at the subway station and accompanied us toward the church, which we were pleasantly surprised to discover looks like a church (rather than some anonymous building with a red neon cross at the top and a 7-11 on the ground floor).
Our friend duly informed us that the church is to be soon demolished to make way for a new suburb of apartment buildings and will most likely be replaced by the something resembling the standard place of worship described above. The congregation are understandably saddened by this.
The service started, and although this was my first mass in decades, I remembered the basics. My wife seemed completely clueless however (I have no idea what happens at a Serbian Orthodox church – I’ll have to ask her about that some time), and she had a few questions.
“Are we supposed to clap?”
“Shh. No… just do what everybody else does”.
“Ah… usual Korean style then?”
“Shh… yes. Shh”.
My five-year-old daughter also didn’t understand all the standing up, sitting down and generally being quiet. Luckily we had her emergency paper and crayons handy.
The mass itself, all in Korean of course, was a tidy one-hour service. My wife seemed impressed that I could sing the songs, which were the same tunes I remember from childhood (and the Korean lyrics were projected in Hangul on the big screen). We watched our friend direct his choir, who sang three pieces by Handel, and three others that we would find out later were original compositions he had written the lyrics for.
The three of us were the only foreigners at the service, so everyone there was very nice, and fussed over us. When asked why we had chosen their church for Christmas mass, the pack of ajummas (clutch? pride? Is there a collective noun for a group of ajumma?) were all very impressed that we are friends with the choir director, who is apparently a bit of a big-shot in that crowd. I looked around at the congregation milling outside the church, all smiling and chatting and freezing… and I saw it. The Christmas Spirit! This was the sense of community and togetherness I’ve heard about, from everyone I know who goes to church. I can understand its appeal (though I’ve seen the same kind of camaraderie in other types of clubs too – go with whatever works I reckon).
The pastor came to greet us. He smiled and said Merry Christmas to my daughter. He smiled and said Merry Christmas to my wife. Then he looked at me, paused thoughtfully for a second, then smiled, nodded and said… Shalom.
I just stood there opening and closing my mouth for a moment, which was fine because the pastor had already moved on to smile at some other people. But… seriously? WTF, Koreans? Actually this kind of presumptuousness is fairly typical there. I understand that I’ve never looked like the stereotypical Aussie, whatever that is.
Depending on how I am dressed, and level of beardedness at any given time, my friends tell me I somewhat resemble a movie terrorist, shady diamond dealer, a Russian or an Arab. Ajummas did occasionally during my morning commute ask if I was Israeli (perhaps because of my suit-wearing and briefcase-carrying habits, in addition to my nose – Koreans love silly stereotypes more than most), and I did get told at times as a kid to “go back to your own country, ya fuckin’ wog!”
Funnily enough, my family arrived in Australia in the early 19th Century when the population of the colonies was less than half a million, and all four of my grandparents were born there (which is statistically quite rare these days).
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Christmas. Merry Christmas, wherever you are.