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Christmas Comes to Old Korea
Koreans bemused by wintertime antics of Westerners
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-24 04:01 (KST)   
Like much of the world, Christmas is evident in Korea. Many young Korean children anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus (Korean children refer to him as Grandfather Santa) as much as their counterparts in other parts of the world, but the tradition of Christmas is relatively new to Korea -- no more than 120 years old.

During the late 19th century, many Westerners in Korea, especially the children, found winter to be a time of rest and play. Thick blankets of snow often covered the ugliness of the urban areas giving it a clean and new look. Travel became virtually impossible and families were forced to spend more time with each other and their neighbors. As in the United States and Europe, the foreigners living in Korea attended Christmas and New Year's parties, exchanged gifts, and frolicked in the snow -- much as they do now. The antics of the Westerners during the wintertime provided the Korean population with entertainment and sometimes gifts.

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Christmas parties, especially in the 1880s, were held in individual homes, and were small affairs attended by most of the foreign community. However, by the mid-1890s, Christmas parties were held at the Seoul Union -- near the American Legation -- and in the heart of Seoul. Food, drink, games for the children and entertainment was provided by and for members of the community.

Some members played musical instruments, put on skits, recited poetry or gave lectures accompanied with magic lantern shows (slide shows). Sometimes outsiders provided the entertainment: sailors and marines sent to guard the various legations during times of unrest provided a much needed diversity of entertainment (although it was occasionally deemed unsuitable by the missionaries) for the foreign community as well as some Koreans.

One such event was on Jan. 22, 1895, when the American marine detachment assigned to protect the American Legation provided entertainment. It "was largely attended and was pronounced a success," by not only the foreign community but several Korean visitors. Among the Koreans present were Prince Eui-hwa and Major Yi of the Royal Palace police force.

Presents and Food

Up until the mid 1890s the selection of foods and gifts that could be obtained in Seoul was quite limited -- most of the time the early foreigners had to utilize what was on hand and were forced to make their own gifts and toys or had to order them from the United States and Europe. Game birds were abundant and many of the early Westerners hunted -- often for duck and pheasant. In addition to the game they hunted they also had their extensive gardens of vegetables and fruits, which were often dried and preserved. By the mid 1890s, when the population in Seoul had grown large enough to support several stores, the selection greatly improved. Items of clothing, Christmas decorations, toys and even live turkeys could be obtained from the businesses on Legation Street -- albeit, they were expensive, but they were obtainable.

Often the wealthier or more affluent Western families donated money or effort for the good of the community during Christmas. In 1902, Horace Allen, the American minister to Korea, gave money to each of the mission schools and to needy people and declared to his sons that he had "done very well."

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees naturally played an integral part of the holiday season. Horace Allen's wife decorated Christmas trees for the foreign children at the Seoul Union's reading room where large Christmas parties, complete with gifts and Santa Claus, were held.

Christmas trees didn't only grace the homes of the foreigners, but also, at least on one occasion, the Korean palace. In 1894-95, Lillias Underwood decorated a tree for the royal family:

Soon after Christmas I dressed a Christmas tree for the royal family, but to my great vexation, the effect was quite spoiled because their majesties were too impatient to wait till dark to view it, and one cannot lock the doors on kings and queens and forbid them to do as they will in their own palaces. There were no heavy hangings or means of darkening the room, and so the poor little candles flickered in a sickly way in the glaring daylight, and I felt that Western customs were lightly esteemed in the critical eyes of the East.
Ice Skating

One of the winter activities that many of the Westerners in Korea enjoyed was ice skating. Although Korea had its own version of sledding and ice skating, the first ice skates to appear in Korea are credited to Lts. Philipp V. Lansdale and Wilson of the USS Palos -- an American warship sent to protect the American minister to Korea, Lucius Foote, during the 1884 revolt in Korea.

According to popular accounts in newspapers throughout the United States following Lansdale's death in 1899, Korea had no skates prior to his arrival. When Lansdale and a group of men were sent from Chemulpo to Seoul to help guard the legation, Lansdale brought, in addition to his bicycle, a pair of skates. The Korean people were astounded by Lansdale skimming over the ice. "Wilson and he [Lansdale] frequently went skating together, one darting over the ice while the other amused himself by watching the natives scramble on the ice for 'cash' which he tossed up in the air."

Perhaps one of the best accounts of early skating was by Ensign George Foulk who was the acting charge d'affaires at the American legation in Seoul in January 1886:

The cold weather was long coming this year, but it has arrived with a vengeance. Some two weeks ago I found a lotus pond near the city wall, frozen over hard. Borrowing a pair of skates, I went there to skate quite late in the evening, with one of my guards. I got on the pond quietly and started out, found I could get around fairly well. In a few minutes I heard a Korean yell out, "Won! i-i-ron-chemi!" (What in the devil is that!), referring to me, and in ten minutes I was fairly blocked by the hundreds of people who crowded on the ice to see me. Such a thing as skates was never before heard or thought of in Korea, and the first Koreans who saw me thought, as I heard them say, I was some sort of devil. I came close in to being mobbed and it took an hour to make the crowd understand what was the matter with my feet. When I tried a succession of flourishes, the whole crowd kept up a yelling excited jargon, of oaths and exclamations. The skates were of the Acme pattern. One of the wonders to the Koreans was how they stuck to my feet. I passed the skates around the crowd and it gave me the greatest pleasure to see how interested they all were to examine them. I explained how a common skate could be made and I think the crowd will all have skates before many days. I told the Koreans the ice was too rough to skate well on. On the next day, I went again to the pond and found fully 2,000 people hanging about to see me skate. They had gotten old carpenter's planes and axes and had planed and cut off all the bumps on the whole pond for me. This has been the whole talk of the town ever since, and a lot of Koreans have come here to beg me to try it again.
Another early account took place at the palace a year later (1887) when a group of missionaries were invited to the palace to ice-skate so that the royal family could look on. But it was not the only time Westerners were invited to the palace to skate.

In January 1895, there were two skating parties held at the palace and were largely attended by the foreign residents of Seoul. Lillias Underwood was asked by Queen Min herself to invite all of her friends to the palace to skate on the pond near the summer pavilion and act as the hostess and serve warm tea. The Korean Repository wrote of the event: "The ice on the pond was in good condition and the feeling was general that hearty thanks were due to their Majesties for the gracious invitation. The summerhouse on the island was warmed and a light collation was served."

Soon skating became quite popular in Korea. Horace Allen and his family were avid skaters, as were a large number of the Westerners in Seoul. As evidenced by an article that appeared in a December 1897 edition of The Independent, it was also popular with the Korean population:

"Not a few members of the foreign population are taking pleasure with their skates on the river or on a paddy field in the vicinity of the city. Their delight is obviously no more abundant than that of the Korean audiences which gather and watch the exercise with respectful though not always silent enjoyment."

According to Kyu-tae Yi, a Korean historian and journalist: "When the Western missionaries went skating near [the] East Gate, people would pay for space from which to watch them and food vendors congregated to sell their wares to the crowd. The ice skating was christened 'art of ice' or 'art of foot' by the scholars while the common people called it 'Western foot show.'"

Yi wryly noted that Horace Allen was a particular favorite, not only for his skill but for the additional treat provided when the wind blew his hat from his head revealing "his balding dome and red hair." For a Korean nobleman, it was considered disgraceful and undignified to be viewed in public bareheaded, and thus the laughter and interest generated by Allen might not have been so much his "balding dome and red hair" but rather his lack of dignity.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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