We thought we’d spend a quiet Christmas in Seoul this time. The past year had been chaotic with back-to-back travel. We had to tweak our plans because Basil had a work trip to Shanghai — on the next day of Christmas. We’d effectively have to spend most of Christmas Day at Incheon Airport. But we still had the weekend before Christmas and I thought it would be nice to soak in the festivities at one of the busiest neighbourhoods in Seoul. 

Myeongdong Shopping Street (명동)

I’ve mastered the art of finding quiet places in a bustling city like Seoul. Myeongdong is definitely not one of them. However, I can’t escape it because of my weekly Hanji (Korean paper crafting) classes and it’s also the place most visiting friends like to explore. N Seoul Tower is bang opposite and Seoullo 7017 is a stone’s throw away from here. Myeongdong is one of the best places to get great deals on Korean beauty products or try the latest trends. The whole street is lit up a month before Christmas. It’s nice to be surrounded by so many people when you’re feeling glum because you’re away from family.

Street Food

Sampling street food is probably the best part of Myeongdong. Local delicacies are freshly prepared right in front of you. The prices are affordable and it’s perfect to get a taste of Korean street food. We bought hot corn to combat the biting cold.

Myeongdong Cathedral (서울 명동성당)

LED roses adorn the front lawns of Myeongdong Cathedral during Christmas season. The construction of this Gothic styled cathedral began around 1892 and it was finally consecrated 6 years later. The site of this cathedral had been the founding place for the first Catholic community dating as far back as 1784.

Bed of Roses

On a cold, dark evening in December; the LED roses glowed like stars in the sky. It’s surreal to see those bursts of light on the garden bed and it’s one of the many highs of Christmas in Seoul.

Cathedral Architecture

Myeongdong Cathedral is designated as a National Historic Site because of its unique architecture — credited to be one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival in Korea. The bell tower is the most striking feature of the cathedral and rises above at 46.7 m. The main building is 23 m high. The relics of the martyrs who lost their lives during the era of Christian persecution are buried in a crypt below the main altar.

Crib & Tree

A small crib was placed above the stairway. Not far away, a tree was decorated with countless lights. It kind of reminded me of the glowing bush in the Ten Commandments.

We entered the cathedral from one of the doors on the side. A small group of people had gathered inside and were attentively listening to the priest’s sermon. It was the Saturday evening service in Korean. I was surprised that some women still covered their heads with a white lace veil. As a kid, I’d seen my aunts, mum, and grandma cover their heads during mass. But, these days, it isn’t very common to cover your head and most women choose not to.

I’ve always battled with blind faith and belief in powers beyond the realm of our understanding. I’ve resisted following traditions or customs that I can’t comprehend. Back home, I’d be dragged for Sunday services or days of obligation. I’d reluctantly comply with my parents. And that’s the funny thing about being an expat. You’ve got this immense freedom to do what you want. Nobody expects anything from you. You’re an alien who can make your own story or alternate reality and nobody really cares. And yet, here I was, inside a church, hands folded, ready to hold on to anything that would bring me closer to the people that I loved back home. It was a desperate attempt to create a shared experience in a totally different setting.

We’d never walked behind the cathedral before and we discovered the parish office and a confessional. Red bricks fill up the towering walls of the cathedral and stained glass windows let light trickle inside.

Grotto

I was surprised to see the grotto and a statue of the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception — the patron saint of the cathedral. Those images opened the floodgates of my childhood memories. It took me back to the days of Sunday School, the Holy Sacraments, Midnight Mass, and festivities that followed. It was hard not to get overwhelmed by emotion. I always preferred Christmas to Easter because everyone was happy and sometimes you just need a reason to forget what’s weighing you down. That’s what Christmas is for me. Even if we were miles away from family, it was a time to be happy and appreciate all the things we have in life.

I’ve always wondered why churches looked spooky at night. Maybe it was the cemetery (we didn’t find one here) and the ghost stories that created that strange feeling. Earlier in the day, Basil and I had binged on ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and I was trying hard not to get spooked by the moon.

Berlin Wall

We walked from Myeongdong Cathedral towards Cheonggyecheon Stream. We passed by a section of the Berlin Wall — donated by Berlin — in hope of unification of the Korean Peninsula. I’ve passed this section many times before and never bothered to understand why a crumbling grey wall was placed near the stream. Few weeks before, Basil’s colleague had connected the dots, and the text on the board confirmed his doubts. There’s always something new to discover in this city.

Cheonggyecheon Stream & Cheongyye Plaza (청계천 & 청계광장)

Chyeonggyecheon Stream is the venue for multiple festivals including Seoul Lantern Festival. Christmas markets and performances are held here during Christmas season. We were sure to find some festivities on the weekend before Christmas. The whole stream was lit up with colourful lights and floating exhibits.

A section of the promenade was turned into an activity centre for kids and adults. Couples could write their wishes on lanterns and set them afloat on the waters of the stream.

 

The lighting was spectacular and it was nice to see familiar symbols of Christmas. I wished for some carols too.

It’s pretty easy to get lost here when there are hordes of visitors wearing similar winter wear. I lost track of Basil when I turned to click pictures of the floats. After some desperate rings and heated exchange of words, we were united near the waterfall.

The ginormous Christmas Tree was sparkling with light and was decorated with stars. It was the central focal point for most people.

The performance area tried to recreate a cathedral of sorts. It was stunningly created with fine lights and looked beautiful at night. It was freezing and people didn’t seem to be bothered by the cold.

Food Trucks

There were many food trucks on either side of the performance venue. Basil wanted to beat the cold and sit indoors. It was nearing 9 p.m. and most of the restaurants had taken their last orders. We walked towards Gwanghwamun Square and took a bus back home.

 Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year filled with new adventures and places to explore. 

Posted by:twobrownfeet

Walkers. Wanderers. Travellers. Now in Seoul.

28 replies on “Our First Christmas in Seoul

  1. You always find something in your backyard, Cheryl. Those pictures are beautifully composed. Smartphone? or is that taken from a new camera you mentioned before? Yes, the LED roses are a beautiful sight. BTW, Is Korea increasingly becoming Christian? I read a bit about that.

    1. Mum taught me to appreciate what we have rather than crave for what we didn’t. I try to apply that to every aspect of life, including travel. 🙂 We’re very happy with the pictures too, especially Basil. They’ve been shot on his new camera (Sony A7 M3). He’s enjoying experimenting with photography. I can’t say when the first missionaries came to Korea. If I’m not mistaken, the Christian rise happened after Independence. There are many new-age sects and cults here. But Buddhism is still followed by many. And there are many who don’t follow any particular faith. 🙂

      1. Great that Basil is enjoying his new toy. Your mom’s outlook needs appreciation. I’m happy that she has instilled right attitude. I guess the reason why people choose not to follow any religion is that it has ceased to lead them? or it is convenient?

  2. Cheryl it was another lovely personal account. I laughed at your losing Basil. After 30 years of marriage, my husband still manages to wander away in a crowd and I lose him. I just wait for him to return to the spot. You know, even if one isn’t an expat Christmas can be very moving with memories. If you want to travel forward, looking back will have you veer off course. Travel smoothly in 2019.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Karen. 🙂 Basil’s a wanderer and I’m a dreamer. Quite a bad combination. After losing each other in a mall in Bangkok (we had been married for 3 months back then), we decided that I should wait wherever we were together last. I guess, I panicked here and wasn’t thinking straight. Thanks for your tip and the thought. I agree, moving forward is so hard at times because of what’s tugging you. Happy 2019!! xoxo

  3. Your street photos of Seoul at night time are really awesome and capture the mood of Christmas in Korea. The light up could have been mistaken for any place in Europe. I didn’t know that Christmas is celebrated at such an elaborate scale in Korea. Best wishes to you as we go into the first few days of the New Year.

    1. Thanks, Helen. 🙂 There are two aspects to Christmas. The commercial aspect (across the globe) benefits business and sales. The spiritual aspect is a little different. There are so many Christian sects & cults here. I can’t say how it’s celebrated in each. We attended a Presbyterian service (2016) in Pyeonchang. It was very interesting. Catholics (or it’s just my friends) don’t do much here. And that’s so surprising because Christmas always means spending time with family for us. Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) & Sollal (Lunar New Year) are the biggest festivals here. 🙂 Have a Happy New Year! xo

  4. I really related to this: “And yet, here I was, inside a church, hands folded, ready to hold on to anything that would bring me closer to the people that I loved back home. It was a desperate attempt to create a shared experience in a totally different setting.” Nostalgia can eve bring back a religious feeling! It’s happened to me, too.

    1. You know I thought it’s an expat thing or just me missing mum. Reading comments, I realised that everyone goes through those feelings, expat or not. 🙂
      Here’s to 2019 and new adventures!

  5. What a stunning display of Christmas lights and festivities. I imagine it’s just as beautiful at other times of the year too. Must admit my faith in Catholicism has wavered since mum died but there is something about being in a church, especially at Christmas, that brings the memories flooding back. Glad you had a lovely Christmas my friend. Your words and photos always transport me. xx

    1. The stream looks beautiful all through the year. It’s nice to walk along and escape the city. I know what mean. Faith can be hard. I like quiet places of worship. They’re peaceful and great to clear the mind. But in Christmas, it’s like opening a dam of memories. I’m with you. Thanks for such generous comments. Sending you a warm hug from Seoul! xoxo

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