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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.