March 23, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
Sharing holidays in Korea has been one of the best parts of my stay here. You can see previous blogs for discussions of Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), Halloween and American Thanksgiving.
This month the students shared a holiday triple-play with me and I shared one with them.
I thought Americans made a huge deal of Valentine’s Day. Flowers, chocolates, red and pink hearts, candy, music: February is always a bit overwhelming. But Koreans have taken the idea of Valentine’s Day to a new level, turning it into THREE separate holidays. Here’s how it works:
On Valentine’s Day, tradition here says that girls should give their boyfriends chocolate and a gift. Flowers are way too expensive in February since everyone is already buying them for middle school, high school and college graduations. But what do guys get girls?
Yep. Guys get girls nothing for Valentine’s Day. ( I can hear American guys cheering all the way over here). But wait. This is because the true Korean Valentine’s Day is in March - March 14 to be exact.
On “White Day”, guys buy girls flowers or candy and a gift. While I was surprised the advertising for Valentines’ Day was so ordinary, this is because White Day is the BIG day. Candy baskets cascade into the street and florists have a waiting line. In my March 14 class, I was interrupted by the delivery of a dozen red roses and a chocolate cake from one girl’s boyfriend, studying abroad in Australia. (I didn’t notice but I’m sure the guys in the class just groaned, watching the ante get upped before their eyes).
THEN on April 14, Koreans celebrate “Black Day”. In America, single people tend to protest the overwhelming “couple” focus of Valentine’s Day by wearing black and hanging out with their single friends. Here there is a whole day for doing that. Same-sex friends, whether single or dating, give each other chocolate and flowers and spend the day together, celebrating friendship.
Hallmark has a whole new market to explore here.
In return, I shared American Easter with my students. It is hard to believe but Korea has no Easter bunny!
Korean Christians celebrate the spiritual holiday of Easter, but the holiday does not seem to have a secular component the way it does in the United States. No Easter baskets, no pastel-colored malted milk eggs, no towering displays of chocolate bunnies, no Easter egg dying, no Easter egg hunts. It is as if the Christian holiday arrived in Korea stripped of the pagan celebrations of spring inherent in the eggs, the pastels, the little bunny rabbits.
My husband and parents, guessing I would want to share “American” Easter with my students, sent me plastic Easter eggs, Easter “grass”, and all the traditional candies. So I began all my classes this week with questions about Easter in Korea, discussions of the Christian holiday, and then explanations of the other ways Americans celebrate Easter in addition to going to church. The students were a bit baffled; to be fair “secularized” religious holidays are a bit baffling. But on a warm, sunny day, it was easy to understand celebrating the return of spring, the rising of the world from the death of winter.
The discussion of holidays pointed out one more interesting piece of culture. Whenever older Koreans visit each other or give a hoiliday gift, it tends to be food. Cartons of fresh fruit, decorative boxes of Spam, gift-wrapped containers of hand-made kimchee, even bottles of olive and grapeseed oil. The younger generation likes any excuse for chocolate. So how long will it be before foot-high Easter bunnies are all the rage in Korea?