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31 Dec 2022

The power of tradition – Having finally finished all my grading for the semester this past Wednesday—I had an unusually large number of students this semester, so it went right down to the wire—I can finally sit down and write something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks. Toward the beginning of the month, HJ and I were out doing some shopping, and we came across some places selling miniature Christmas trees (fake, of course) and other Christmas-related items. There was Christmas music playing over the sound system. I could even smell holiday spices wafting from scented candles. It was a full-on Christmas assault on my senses, and for some reason it took me by surprise, even though I guess I should have been expecting it.

“A wave of memory washed over me—not specific memories, necessarily, but echoes of things I had felt long ago....”

My first thought was to be disgusted by the commercialization of Christmas, as the whole point of the set-up was to sell people stuff. But before I thought that, I felt something else: an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. A wave of memory washed over me—not specific memories, necessarily, but echoes of things I had felt long ago, feelings associated with the Christmas holiday. And I soon realized that the disgust that followed was not a general, intellectual disgust at the commercialization of Christmas, but a sense of shame at having been taken in by the ruse, even if only momentarily.

I’ve written about Christmas in Korea a number of times before, and although I’ve touched on my issues with it on those occasions, I won’t make you go back and read old entries now. Besides, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really properly put into words why it bothers me. During a Skype conversation with my brother last weekend, I described Christmas as something that was laid on top of the existing culture but didn’t have any meaningful roots. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, I had a meeting with my MA advisee, and during our conversation we happened to chat about Christmas. I came up with a different way of describing the holiday here that I think I like better: It is the shell of a holiday without anything inside.

This doesn’t mean that Christmas is completely meaningless, but it doesn’t have the same meaning here as it has in the States. For Christians in Korea, it is a time for celebration, but even then it is honestly not that big of a deal. Aside from its religious significance, though, it is simply a day off, an opportunity for lovers or friends to get together and spend time with each other. What it most definitely is not is a time to spend with family—Koreans have other holidays for that.

So when I say that Christmas in Korea is a holiday without anything inside, what I mean is that we’ve adopted all the (commercial) trappings of Christmas—the holiday music, the trees, the decorations, the Christmas-themed foods and other products—but we don’t have those things that truly give Christmas its meaning. It’s sort of like a Twinkie: sweet and tasty, but filled with nothing of substance and leaving you feeling empty. I used to get really depressed around Christmas for precisely this reason. It doesn’t affect me as much anymore—I’ll often feel a little twinge, but then I’ll just shake it off and go about my business. It probably helps that I am usually too busy at the end of the year to spend much time thinking about Christmas. This year, though, for reasons that I will not go into right now, the pang I felt was particularly sharp. Mind you, everything that I described above went through my mind in an instant. I mentioned to HJ that I was suddenly feeling an overwhelming sense of Christmas nostalgia, and she suggested that we get a tree. Not a real one, mind you, but one of the small fake ones they were selling. I tried to act nonchalant about the whole thing, but I agreed to look at the trees, at least. None of them turned out to be all that appealing, though. I hid my mild disappointment behind an affected sangfroid as we walked away.

Fast forward to the week before Christmas. I’m sitting in my office, grading student papers, when my phone buzzes. I pick it up and see that HJ has sent me some photos of Christmas trees. Then she calls me and says that she has found some trees that look nice. One of them, a frosted variety that reminds me somewhat of a blue spruce, is normally more expensive than the other ones that we looked at, but it is half off due to the proximity of Christmas—they’re trying to offload their stock before they get stuck with it for another year. “What do you think?” she asks. “This one looks nice, doesn’t it? Should I pick it up?” I quickly put on my sangfroid. “Yeah, it does look nice. You can pick it up if you want.” When I get home that evening, the tree is standing in the corner, blinking with lights, laden with ornaments, and topped with an old, sparkly star. Pretty much the entire living room is covered in glitter. But that’s OK, because somehow it feels like Christmas.

Why do these things still affect me the way they do? The tree means nothing—it’s not even real. And the tree was never what mattered about Christmas anyway. But, for better or for worse, the decorated tree has always been a symbol of Christmas. And that’s the power of tradition. Traditions are things that are handed down (the word comes from the Latin traditionem, which literally means to hand or pass down), mainly customs, practices, and beliefs. But along with these customs, practices, and beliefs are the symbols that stand for them. In actuality, it can often be hard to distinguish custom or practice from symbol. For example, it is customary to eat turkey at Thanksgiving in the United States, but the turkey itself has also become a symbol for the holiday. Those customs and practices that become bound up with symbols are often the most fiercely guarded—I mean, turkey is hands down the least tasty of all birds and many people still insist on eating it just because it is a symbol of Thanksgiving.

As far as Christmas goes, the Christmas tree has become, as I mentioned above, an important symbol of the holiday even as it is also a custom (i.e., setting up the tree, decorating it, putting presents under it, etc.). And I know that it is a powerful symbol—at least for me—because even a fake tree that barely comes up to my chest is sufficient to evoke all the emotions I associate with Christmas. It is not a substitute for the thing itself. It does not literally take me back to a more innocent childhood when I looked forward to presents on Christmas morning, but it reminds me that such a time once existed. Such a reminder can be comforting when life is overwhelming.

Not that I would want to go back to that past, even if I could. It is true that there are times I wish the world wasn’t as complicated as it is, but going back to an innocent childhood would mean, for one thing, that I would have to go through adolescence again, and nothing is worth that. But Christmas wasn’t just about being an innocent child—it was about being together as a family. I have a family now with HJ, and I’m glad that we get to spend Christmas together, but I do miss my family back in the States as well. When I was young, I didn’t think of my time with my family as having an expiration date. Even when I first came to Korea (I was still young then, too), while of course I did miss my family, I didn’t think too seriously about the passage of time. If there is any aspect of that youthful innocence that I miss, it is having all the time in the world and knowing that my family would always be there.

I’ve had some time to mull over all of this since I first started writing this entry (on Wednesday evening), though, and I have since realized that I am being a little uncharitable calling Christmas in Korea a “shell of a holiday with nothing inside.” For as much as I realize now that I still enjoy the trappings of Christmas, HJ has always loved them more. I know that she bought the tree in large part because she could tell it meant something to me (naturally, she saw through my attempts at nonchalance), but the truth is that she is still far more into the decorations and the ambiance than I am. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I would come home and find some YouTube channel or another playing on the television, Christmas music ringing out over images of a snowy village or a crackling fire. If I truly believe that all this is just an empty shell, then I also believe that my wife is a shallow and superficial person—and I certainly don’t believe that.

The reconciliation of these various ideas is simple, of course: Symbols and traditions mean different things to different people. HJ may not have grown up with Christmas like I did, but the symbols and traditions associated with it can still give her a sense of warmth and coziness. Her Christmas nostalgia is a nostalgia for a time she never knew (an idea that is encapsulated in the neologism “anemoia”), but the feeling can be just as powerful. Yes, Christmas has been commercialized, but if it didn’t speak to people in some fundamental way, it would never have stuck around long enough to become commercialized. Contrary to what is often thought, traditions don’t have to remain unchanged to continue to have meaning in society; they can be adopted by new people and adapted to new situations. The Christmas that I knew feels “real” to me only because it was my own experience—no doubt someone from a hundred years ago would find my idea of Christmas alien in many respects. In the end, we all find our own meanings in traditions and symbols.

So there you have it. My last entry of the year has been a mish-mash of random thoughts and ideas that I have tried to pull together into something cohesive. There is a bit of me as the stranger in a strange land, a bit of me as the folklorist, and a bit of me as just another human being trying to make his way in this crazy world. I suppose the best way to end this is to say that, whatever you may celebrate, I hope you are having a happy holiday season. And, as the last hours of 2022 fade away, may you have a happy new year as well.

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