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Christmas, Gangnam Style!

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Christmas, Gangnam Style!

Well, not really. This post will not be exploring back down below the Han River, but will be looking at the particularly Korean nature of Christmas. But if it has to do with rapid adoption of Western culture or mass consumer culture, you know  Gangnam has to come into this somewhere.

For many Americans, the Christmas and holiday season has always been a special time to be spent with family and is a sacred oasis from the world of work, no matter what one's religion. One has to remember that Christmas in Korea, and in Japan, for that matter, is a markedly different celebration. In recent years, Americans have been heard to the bemoan the over-commercialization of Santa's special day, and have been seen to fight over its perceived over-secularization, or even the supposedly "attack on Christmas." In the end, this is all a fight about a moral thing: a Rankin-Bass cartoon lesson about remembering "the true meaning of Christmas."

The winter wonderland of a Myeongdong Christmas is full of bright lights and consumptive fantasies. Christmas in the Myeongdong fashion/shopping district is tradition.

However, South Korea has not been the country that was very invested in the decoration and accoutrements of that holiday, and even into the 1990s, not very much actually happened on 25 December besides being what Koreans call a "red day" on the calendar and a public holiday from work. For Koreans, it wasn't even the biggest holiday of the year, which is reserved for the Korean version of Thanksgiving, when people venerate their ancestors in the small rituals in the household. In fact, this holiday called Chuseok often ends up lopping three or four days off of the work week, depending on when it falls every year. So Christmas hasn't always been a holiday of great import for everyone in the land of the morning calm.

In Korea, Christmas is for couples. Every moment of the holiday is the final 15 minutes of that holiday special romantic edition of your favorite show, heartwarming end of A Christmas Carol, or alternatively and more recently, Love Actually.

A true Christmas couple getting an early Christmas Eve start. She even got her present!!! Merry Christmas, guys!!!

It's a time to look one's best, to go on the ultimate romantic date, to be the best couple one can be.

Christmas couples in Korea about and abounding on Christmas Eve.

It's full on romantic Christmas in Korea, Actually!

Christmas is one of the most successfully marketed holidays of the year and also the most lucrative for retailers and a great boost for the consumer economy. For Koreans, it is also the most fun. What other holiday involves as much a gift exchange, bright and gaudy colors, and tons of decoration, not to mention Christmas trees, wreaths, and mistletoe to kiss under? In fact, Christmas is the holiday with this largest overarching theme and set of aesthetic imperatives, complete with a standardized color scheme. It also serves as a great temporal and cultural backdrop to offer extra punch to action films such as Die Hard and even romantic comedies such as Love Actually. Christmas episodes of popular television series offer another point of emotional connection and point of common ground for fans. And for consumers, Christmas offers itself as the biggest theme party of the year.

Which is how the Koreans have come to adopt the holiday -- in terms of all of Christmas' accoutrements, decorations, peripheral trappings. This is most apparent in what for many South Koreans has become the ultimate piece of Christmas related popular culture, the romantic comedy and runaway hit here in East Asia, Love Actually. Since Christmas is, for most South Koreans, primarily a romantic holiday level that is only rivaled by the American emphasis on Valentine's Day, the film Love Actually was a hit here in a way that few Americans who saw that film as just another romantic comedy that happen to be set during the Christmas season could hope to understand. For Koreans, since Christmas was already heavily associated with romance and young couples sharing Christmas cakes together when the film premiered here in the winter of 2006, it hit a mark that simply doesn't exist in the West in quite the same way, since Christmas has long been associated with quiet time spent with family.

In order to understand Christmas in the South Korean context, one does have to understand how compressed economic development and a runaway consumer culture that is actually quite recent created the context in which an American-style, heavily marketed Christmas experience came into being in South Korea. In that sense, Christmas in Korea is very much related to "Gangnam Style." Christmas is very much related to a specific tradition brought from the West, on the shoulders of a religion also brought from the West, but importantly, with the recent emphasis on the superficial trappings of the holiday as it relates to sparkly Christmas trees, ornaments, and the opportunity to kiss under the mistletoe; and to the extent that Christmas offers itself as yet another theme through which romantic comedies can tell a particular kind of story, for South Koreans, that context becomes stripped away and Christmas itself becomes a time of romance itself, replete with gift exchanges and the chance to melodramatically express oneself to a special loved one. Like in the end of that movie.

Love, Actually in Itaewon. "To me, you are perfect."