Last week on Feminist Mormon Housewives’ Ask Mormon Girl column, there was a question that really resonated with me. A reader asked how she could get her convert fiancé, who had never celebrated Christmas – let alone her family’s all embracing Christmas celebrations – to integrate into a family that does “matching pajamas and rhyming, multi-stage treasure hunts and nativity re-enactments and Danish aebleskivers from my great-grandmother’s recipe and grandkids bolting to bed after sighting Rudolph’s nose in the sky and a laundry list of other traditions.” At the same time, from a discussion on a wives forum I am on, I realized that I am not the only Western wife who has radically different ideas about holidays and celebrations than her Korean husband.
I’ve seen big changes over the last seven Chirstmases in Seoul. However, Christmas is above all a dating holiday when couples go to special Christmas concerts, eat ‘Western’ food, and/or go to heavily packed areas like Myeongdong en masse with other dating couples. When I first got here, it was very difficult and highly unusual to find home decorations – because nobody decorated. And if they did, it was just a small tree not the every room + massive outdoor light displays that happen back in Canada. Above all, Christmas is a public friend/couple holiday lasting about two days with a longer Starbucks/Baskin Robbins/Dunkin Donut build up in Korea. Holiday concerts seem to be increasing at nursery schools and Kindergartens if my friends-with-kids’ Facebook status updates are to be believed, but only in the same way that hogwan competition seems to be driving the Halloween party fad among the 2-6 age group. But Christmas is pretty much an outside holiday. It’s something you participate in with the one you love or the kids at school, but it has very little family meaning. And until I came along, my in-laws had never imagined they would do anything remotely Christmas-related at home.
And speaking of family, of course, as you grow older and start your own family, you realize that what you think of as ‘traditions’ are often your own family traditions and not necessarily the traditions of the wider community around you. The Msleetobe family has a lot of traditions. There are certain movies that have to be watched – The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, White Christmas, the 1960’s Rudolph claymation, and now Elf for example (although if you can throw in a few more, that would be best). The times these movies will be shown are carefully noted and schedules may be rearranged in order that everyone can be in their pjs in the family room, each with a bowl of popcorn, so the watching (and singing) can begin on time. When my father was alive, there were always surprise nightly detours on the way home to neighbourhoods never before known so that we could see the outdoor lights of people we had never met as well as trips to well known Christmas display hot spots. There were Christmas baking extravaganzas and cookie exchanges when I was younger, the Christmas concerts my friend L and I used to put on for our families during our elementary school days, and those many many trips to the mall (or malls) to see Santa. There was the White Gift Service, the church Christmas concert, the Toys for Tots and Canadian Tire money drives at school, special breakfast on Christmas morning, Christmas Eve candlelight service, Avon products in our stockings and yearly tool contribution to our individual tool boxes (cause Dad believed in girls using and owning tools yo), and of course, the yearly Christmas gathering traditions with family, friends, neighbours, and social groups. Christmas was a big freaking deal for me growing up – and very little of that big freaking deal had to do with commercialization and presents. Most of it – at least the things that stick out years later – were the memories, the family traditions, and the magical atmosphere. I fully recognize that not everyone in Canada has these experiences or had them growing up, but I do believe that Christmas was and is a magical time for many people far apart from the commercialization.
But why talk about this here? Because my husband did not grow up in this cultural or family environment. And it’s not just Christmas. It’s pretty much all holidays. His family has a low key Chuseok/Seollal which I think is pretty commonplace in Seoul these days. We celebrate his parents’ birthdays. We take some flowers (the standard ones everyone is supposed to take) on Parents’ Day and eat together, and usually we get together with the in-laws for Mr. Lee’s birthday – but not with any of his other siblings. Each occasion is pretty standard – eat a meal or go out to a galbi restaurant, give money or a standard Korean gift set easily purchased out of the gift section of any department store, and … that’s pretty much it. Now, I recognize that this is partly Mr. Lee’s family dynamics and that other families might be more or less traditional, more or less festive, and be more or less creative.. And I also recognize that my family – which has always celebrated major and minor holidays with a flair (I still get St. Patrick’s Day and Ground Hog Day cards from my mum not to mention Valentine’s Day candy and chocolate) is not necessarily the norm, but there does seem to be a cultural difference in addition to a family/individual difference between how people celebrate special events in Korea and Canada.
I had never really thought about this difference until women in my online group started comparing how our Korean husbands understand and celebrate personal milestones and public holidays. A common thread was that most husbands (living in Korea … some living abroad after living in Korea for most of their lives) did not feel the need to mark anniversaries. Birthdays were sort of celebrated…sometimes. But the biggest complaint was Christmas – including the fact that many raised-in-Korea-men did not feel that family Christmas celebrations were attendance-mandatory when living or visiting abroad – or that even spending time as a family was necessary. To your average Western wife…I would say that’s a major gulf.
In some ways I wonder if part of the problem is that because Christmas is kind of celebrated in Korea. I wrote about this earlier in the year in a post about critical thinking. My students were asked to read an article about Canadian Christmas traditions and then brainstorm the differences with Korean Christmas traditions. However, despite their excellent reading comprehension and very detailed information meant to get students thinking about the differences, many students failed to notice any of the differences. They said ‘we have a Santa and A reindeer and we have Christmas trees…in department stores’ without noticing that the article talked about an in-depth Santa myth that is not present in Korea or a multitude of differences in who the time was celebrated with, and where, and what people ate etc. The idea (widespread across all of my classes) was that Koreans had Christmas, and Canadians had Christmas….so they must be the same right? Of course, anyone who has spent a family Christmas in Canada and a date night on the town in central Seoul knows that what constitutes Christmas in each country is very different not necessarily in symbols but rather in meaning, tradition, and atmosphere.
Of course, when you are a single expat in need of others to hang out with during the holiday or a person involved in the dating scene, this distinction doesn’t matter as much. However, when you get married and start wanting to continue your past traditions or start new ones – or especially when you have children and suddenly realize that the traditions you never gave much thought to are important, there can be a disconnect if your partner considers Christmas to be a night to drink with friends or something only young 20-somethings do.
I feel happy in that I started pushing for a more home-centred Christmas long before we got married so that by the time we got to this stage in our lives, there was less controversy. Christmas Eve is a night for church. The end. Christmas Day is a day to spend with family (blood, marriage, or urban). These have long been my two demands and slowly Mr. Lee has started to see how these two days of Christmas celebrations can be helpful in building traditions. Of course, I have to give something too. Mr. Lee just does not understand the Christmas movie thing (and neither it seems does Korean tv which ran ‘Christmas specials’ such as Cars, Bridget Jones Diary: The Edge of Reason, Toy Story etc as their ‘festive movies’). I think I will always watch Elf and sing to The Muppet’s Christmas Carol while he watches Swedish rock videos in his home office. He is also never going to be okay with me blasting Christmas carols in the house from the end of November – but I can listen on my ipod on the way to work. And he is never going to fill a stocking for me…and after years of trying to do stockings for him, I’ve realized that the stocking tradition really does not work unless it’s reciprocal.
At the same time, there are traditions I cannot give up, and I especially want my son to grow up with. I did a big 10.5 hr Christmas cookie extravaganza this year and shared the dozens of cookies with my neighbours and coworkers. I’ve started insisting that we see his parents during Christmas and bring them a gift. They of course are totally thrilled to be getting a gift, and although we’re eating pat juk or bibimbap and not a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner, I think it’s a good tradition for both me and the family. In addition, we’ve had two years now of Skyping present opening with my mum and sis – not the same as the real thing, but for those times when we are not together during the holidays, I’m happy to embrace technology so that we can hang out together during Christmas. And certainly when Dragon is old enough to form his own memories of Christmas, we will stop doing Christmas dinner at a hotel and start making a meal at home, wrapping presents properly, and putting them under a tree (I would have a big tree now, but the cats would climb it…I’m hoping that my Olympiad cat will have lost some of his prowess by the time Dragon can remember a tree so that we can have a proper one), And last but not least, of course we will always have Korean Christmas cake which thank God is so far superior in taste and style than what most native English speakers think about when they hear ‘Christmas cake).
When we were a bit earlier on in our relationship, I used to really struggle with how non-tradition oriented Mr. Lee was during major events and holidays. Did he not care about me? Did he not care about memories? At that point I tried to start making a point out of celebrating more. If he didn’t want to go out for his birthday with his friends – because none of his friends ever did friend things for their birthdays – that was fine. But I was going to do something to make his birthday special. And now several years later, I do think he looks forward to having a ‘Mr. Lee Day’ even though he did not grow up with that kind of experience. And now, slowly over the years, I think I’ve been able to show him another way of celebrating, and where we are now is somewhere sort of in the middle where I realize that I can’t have everything my way and he recognizes that he married someone from a different family and culture who is going to celebrate a little (lot) differently. I’ve also come to realize that what I thought of as ‘traditions’ did at one time have an origin in our family, and that they only became tradition between my parents, or our church, or school, or my dance teacher, or someone decided to make them a tradition. And thus, if I want my child to grow up with Christmas traditions, then it is really my responsibility – not the culture I am in – or the family I married into – or the people who surround me – but my responsibility to make these memories for this child.