A Korean’s First American Christmas

A Christmas tree decorated from top to bottom with white lights and ornaments collected over the years, old stockings hung over the fireplace, gifts wrapped carefully in beautiful paper with Christmas patterns and topped with perfect red and green bows, lights hung from the eaves and boxes and boxes of other decorations scattered throughout the house and lining the shelves. This was the scene when I grew up when the “thanks” of Thanksgiving would end and the Christmas season would go into full affect in our house. It had been at least five years since I had last been home to celebrate this holiday with my family and this year I was bringing home Jae-oo and two of his friends to celebrate Christmas in a pretty traditional American way.

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The presents aren’t my favorite part anymore, mostly because I know what I’m getting before I get it. We make our lists and check them twice and send them to our mother who checks them herself and buys things once. I usually ask for the necessities that I don’t buy in Korea like socks, underwear and books that haven’t made their way across the oceans yet and then add one special probably more expensive gift I’ve been eyeing. My favorite part about the holiday is getting together with the family. Christmas Eve is spent at my grandma’s house for dinner and then Christmas Day everyone heads to our house to eat good food and just be merry. I’m a traditionalist. I love traditions and these are ours and though I live in Korea I still feel like I have to decorate and cook and clean and invite a “family” of sorts over to celebrate the holiday.

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I could finally show Jae-oo what this was all about to me. I could show him why every year on Christmas I invite people to our house and make as much food as I can on our small two burner stove. I get everyone to do the required Secret Santa gift exchange and then play games. The games are my favorite. My family loves games and we play a lot of them, so any holiday that comes around now I think a good game is just what’s in store. It’s been shocking to me over the years while going to other peoples’ parties for holidays how few games they play. What’s a party without a game? I just don’t understand. We’re just to sit and talk? I can only do that for so long.

The first year I invited Jae-oo’s friends over, all Koreans, except one. I decorated our house and made some pretty traditional American fare and then introduced them to White Elephant, the game where everyone brings a gift and then we pick gifts based on the numbers drawn and gifts can be stolen. They thought it was an interesting game and I think I was the only person who “stole” a gift. Next, I introduced them to charades, a game I’d chosen as it is more reliant on body motion and less on language ability. Looking silly or becoming embarrassed isn’t usually the first thing a Korean wants to do and so I ended up acting out every clue so they could guess the first round. Eventually, they got up and joined in the fun and seemed to enjoy it, though I have to admit that unless they come to my house they never want to play. Only when I’m the host can I make this outrageous request. Going to my family home for Christmas was my chance to show Jae-oo, and his two friends, why I go to all of the trouble every year to host a party of my own.

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Our house was full with people. Not only had I brought Jae-oo and his two friends, but my sister’s boyfriend from Australia had also come over to spend the holiday together. We had every bed filled and even a blow up mattress in the basement. We had arrived on Christmas Eve and were thrust right into the activities.

Christmas morning isn’t like it used to be. My sisters and I aren’t huddled in the hallway waiting for our mother to get her required coffee and then waiting for her to sit in her chair in the living room and telling us “okay” at which point we bound out to find the gifts with our names on them. Everyone got up as they pleased from their warm beds, got some coffee and made their way out to the living room and found their seats in a circle. My sister had made extra stockings for our guests so that everyone would have something to take down from over the fireplace and my mom had bought extra presents so that everyone had something to unwrap. No, it wasn’t like it used to be for us, but at the onset it was clear that what had been our childhood memories were about to be a first experience for our Korean guests. They’d seen movies with Christmas and they knew what was about to happen but their eyes were wide with anticipation. They sat silent wondering how we usually do this and just waited, in a much calmer fashion than we ever did. We changed the line-up just a bit to suit the needs of the situation. Usually we open the gifts we bought for each other first, sisters for sisters and us for our mom, followed by the stockings and then followed by Santa’s gifts.

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This year first the stockings were passed out and as is my mother’s, er Santa’s, usual manner there were little games, perfumes and oddities inside. My sisters and I had made it a habit over the years to go through opening all of the gifts fairly quickly and then going back through to find what could be played with now and what would have to be worn or used later and separating things out and then finally really taking off the plastic to enjoy the games. Our Korean friends, however, asked right away after opening their stocking stuffers if they could take the games out of the plastic packaging provided and of course we said “yes” because it was theirs to do with as they pleased and for a moment there was hesitation as it was clear to us that there were more gifts to be opened but they wanted to enjoy the ones they had already. Looking back on it, they may not have been aware there were more gifts for them under the tree.

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We exchanged our immediate family gifts while they started juggling balls and having a merry time with the trinkets from the stockings and it was almost more fun watching them enjoy just the stocking gifts than to tell them there were more to open. When we finally did tell them, they were more surprised than I could have expected, though I really shouldn’t have been. I remembered back to my first year in Korea when after the holidays I had asked my students how Christmas was and asked what they got. I was shocked and appalled that the best gift in the room was a new pencil case. Most students received some sort of study aid which I would have taken as similarly as a lump of coal if I were still young, but they all seemed pleased with the acquisitions. Now, my friends were reminding me of this very scene. They had received the smallest of gifts, gifts that fit in the stockings hung over the fireplace and they were happy, so happy in fact that they weren’t looking for their names on any of the gifts under the tree.

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We passed them the other gifts with their names on them and everyone seemed to pause to watch as the Koreans in the group opened theirs first. There was a childlike quality to their reactions, not that they were acting like children ripping open the paper or anything, just that they were so innocently enjoying this event it made me remember the days when I was still surprised to get things. They thanked my mother numerous times and carefully unwrapped each present they were handed. It made me remember the Christmas there were strings in different colors tied to the tree and my sisters and I followed our designated string to the kitchen where there were three new bicycles waiting for us or the Christmas our family got our first computer. So many Christmas memories came flooding back of times when “the first” of it all was the exciting part. We continued as was habit to go through and separate as we’ve done for years while they enjoyed the first gift they’d opened and then later opened a new one and even later another one.

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Sometimes people can get caught up in the world of buying new and trashing old and don’t stop to enjoy the small things, or big things, that we have. We don’t have to have a lot of brand new shiny things to be happy about. Even a pencil case can bring joy if we let it. I realize more and more how I need less and less, especially when I live in a small apartment half way around the world from where I left boxes of things I now haven’t seen or used in years. What made this Christmas so special was that I didn’t need any of the objects that I received, well okay the underwear was useful, but the real gift of the holiday was being able to watch my friends celebrate with my family and eat food and play games together and see them enjoy it so much and hopefully begin to understand a side of me they haven’t seen before. Their joy and happiness and childlike wonder throughout the holiday season reminded me of my younger days when Santa still brought surprises and the day of playing the games we had gotten with my family was the real gift.

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