This week, I celebrated my first Christmas away from home. While several of my ETA friends had booked their flights back to the states for the holidays, I chose to stay in Korea and save my vacation days for a trip to southeast Asia in January. So I knew that a holiday season without my family would be very different than what I was used to–and I prepared myself for the bouts of homesickness I had been warned about at orientation.
Despite not being at home for the holidays, I tried to maintain some of my favorite Christmas traditions–namely, putting up a Christmas tree and baking Christmas cookies. As early as November, I ordered a Christmas tree for the English classroom and a tree for my homestay.
Here is the Christmas tree in my classroom:
And here is the one I set up in the living room at my homestay:
Seeing the Christmas trees always made me smile. My students and my host sisters loved the trees, too!
I mentioned in a previous post that every year, my mother, my sister and I spend the day before Christmas Eve baking cookies for family and friends. I decided to do the same for my co-teachers, my host family, and my host aunt and host grandma. Luckily, my host family’s kitchen has two small ovens, so I was able to bake a few trays at once.
Over the course of two days, I baked 25 dozen cookies–pumpkin, chocolate chip, double chocolate, sugar, and thumbprint. They were the perfect gifts for the gyomushil (teachers’ office). It was also great bonding with Ye Bin, who helped with the last few batches.
Though I was able to find Christmas trees and bake cookies, those were the only two Christmas traditions I brought from home. In Korea, Christmas is considered a “couples’ holiday,” much like Valentine’s Day in the U.S. Christmas carols aren’t playing on the radio from November to January. Santa isn’t sitting in the shopping mall, taking pictures with children. Many families, religious or not, do not make special plans for Christmas or exchange gifts. My host family is not religious and did not have any plans to celebrate Christmas. In fact, Su Bin still had to go to hagwon! The poor girl never gets a break.
As soon as our school festival finished on Christmas Eve, I had a three-day holiday weekend. If I wasn’t going to see my family at home, I decided to spend it with Fulbright friends. I packed my bags and booked a bus ticket to Seoul. I was going to leave at 6:00 AM on Christmas morning.
Before I left, I wanted to have a mini-Christmas celebration with my host family. My American family sent personalized Christmas stockings for my host sisters, along with some winter goodies like scarves and gloves. I wrapped some games, a few skincare products, and a calendar and put them under my small tree. When Ye Bin, Su Bin, and Host Mom came home around 10:30 P.M., they had their first “Christmas morning” experience. They especially loved seeing their names embroidered on the stockings!
“Santa never came for us,” Su Bin told me when she tried on her scarf. “But now, when I go to hagwon tomorrow, I will be happy!”
It was definitely one of the highlights of my time with my host family.
The following morning, I woke up early to take the bus to Seoul. I met my orientation roommate Cara and two other friends. We stayed at a guesthouse in Hongdae, met a few more friends at an Italian restaurant for dinner, and exchanged presents. We spent the day after Christmas walking around Seoul, visiting a palace and a dog cafe, and just enjoying each other’s company. We all live so far apart, it’s difficult to see each other often. The weekend passed quickly, and then we were on our way back to our schools and host families.
At the end of the weekend, I realized that it still didn’t feel like Christmas had come and passed. I didn’t see Christmas trees or lights or decorations everywhere I looked. I didn’t hear Christmas carols on the radio. I didn’t watch Christmas movies (except Elf, which I showed my students as a special treat). I didn’t eat a Christmas ham and watch the Yule log in the living room with my family. But this holiday season was special nonetheless, and I am immensely grateful to have expanded my idea of family over the last few months.