Korean Christmas

How I spent my Christmas in Korea

My parents and the head monk.

Happy holidays to all of you! I hope they were grand. My Christmas was unexpectedly different from any other one I've ever had, a decidedly Korean Christmas. My parents did come visit for the holiday, which was wonderful. The weekend before Christmas I took the bus up to Seoul and met them there (more on that in another post), and came back to Gwangju for the week because I had to work Monday and Tuesday.  

Christmas day started out very cold. Frost kissed the leaves, and our breath fogged in the hazy air. The clouds hung low and gray, and the sun struggled in vain to pierce the veil throughout the day. This may sound normal to many of you, even slightly dreary, but I'm from Texas, and it struck me as vaguely magical. If I didn't have a white Christmas, at least I had one with the promise of winter weather.

Around 9AM my Korean friend, Mr. Kang, picked my parents and I up to show us around the area.  He took us the village where he grew up, a small, rural town comprised of a motley mix of dilapidated traditional buildings standing in stark contrast to incredibly modern houses topped with solar panels. In the distance skyscrapers spring from the horizon as a brand new city creeps into existence. When completed, the city will house over 20,000 residents, mostly executives currently living in Seoul. As we drove, he explained that his ancestors had lived in the area for 500 years. Everywhere we went he pointed out graves of his predecessors going back generations, and lands his family had owned in the past. These lands, he explained, had mostly been taken by the government. Some were becoming golf courses for the soon-to-arrive execs, some were turned into parks, and others he did not bother to explain. Perhaps he didn't know why they had been taken.

Buddhist temple.  In the distance you can see a grave site: a white shrine next to a number of mounds.

The first place he took us was his Buddhist temple, a centuries-old complex nestled on the side of a mountain around a statue of the Buddha which has stood in that spot over 1,000 years. During the Joseon Dynasty (established in 1392), Confucianism became the national religion and Buddhists were forced to retreat into the mountains, moving their places of worship away from large population centers. That is when this temple relocated to its current location. The founders most likely chose the site based on the already extant, and already centuries-old, statue.

The temple's buddha (not the 1,000 year old one).

The area around the temple was beautiful, but the day, as I said, was hazy and hard to photograph. We began our visit by bowing three times in prayer to the Buddha and making offerings (read: donations) to him. After the prayer session we visited the head monk and had tea with him. Mr. Kang translated for us, and explained that the temple had been at this site for centuries, but had fallen into disrepair in recent decades until this new head monk took over and began renovations. He asked me if I was a Buddhist, and when I responded that I was not he simply said, "You would look good with a shaved head. My clothes would fit you well." It's a new take on proselytizing. 

Head monk's tea set.

Before we left the city, my parents and I had given Mr. Kang a cake as a Christmas/thank-you present for showing us around. He offered this cake to the head monk, who then instructed us to take the cake to the nursing home run by the temple, so we headed there next.

Renovations included a new coat of paint.

The staff at the nursing home gladly accepted the cake and offered us more tea. We noticed that the nursing home smelled better than any one we had been to in the US. I'm not sure what this says about the respective cultures.

After tea Mr. Kang took us to his house, one of the newer houses with solar panels, which was as cold inside as the air outside. As Mr. Kang attempted to get the space heater running, his mother tottered in and offered us coffee and no English conversation other than saying "Okay!" repeatedly. She seemed pleasant enough. She was wearing only some loose garments, but did not seem to mind the cold. After finding the space heater was out of fuel, and noticing that we were shivering, Mr. Kang took us out of the freezing house and into the village for lunch at a local diner. After lunch we went to Mudeung Mountain for some light hiking where I dearly wished I had brought my tripod. I will return to that mountain, so look for posts from there later on. Finally, Mr. Kang dropped us off back in old downtown Gwangju where my parents' hotel was. After dinner, we returned there and opened presents. 

Toying with a driver.

My parents got me a new lens, so I almost immediately I returned to the streets to play with my new toy. On the streets I found that many of Gwangju's youth were out and about. Some were celebrating the holiday with a seemingly impromptu "free hugs" flash mob comprised of hundreds of teens lined up single-file. The street was so thin, and the mob so large, that it nearly choked off all traffic on the street. The few cars unlucky enough to try to drive down the street were heckled and toyed with by the teens. 

I had fun using the new lens, and you should be seeing a lot more pictures through it coming soon. It will be my go-to street-photography lens from now on, I'm sure.


Cars had trouble moving.

All-in-all, this was an incredible holiday: I don't think I'll ever forget my Korean Christmas.