Happy Birthday dear Jesus

I once spent Christmas in South Korea. There is nothing quite like spending Christmas abroad, which isn’t to say that it’s better or worse than Christmas at home, only that it is different. Like other facets of Europe, Christmas there is really only different by degrees. The underlying ideas remain, below different manifestations of the details. In most respects, the main difference between Europe and the US at Christmas time is taste. The former tends to have some. I’ve always thought that odd given that Europe cares far less for Jesus than America but American Christmas tradition mostly leaves Jesus-like ideals out in the plastic manger on the front lawn. Can you imagine Jesus Christmas shopping?

My story, however, has nothing to do with who loves Jesus more or any such thing. Forgive the digression. I sat down to tell you about a Korean Christmas.

Plenty of Koreans love Jesus…a lot. Having a Hangul copy of The Watchtower shoved into your hand by little old lady should prove it, even if Korean churches are strangely set in office blocks and advertised with neon crosses. Most every Christian sect is represented, but the craziest seem to be the most popular. Consequently, many Korean Christians don’t even celebrate Christmas in the popular conception.

Christmas is a national, if minor, holiday. The government and schools close down, but life goes on otherwise normally. I took a walk, got my hair cut and had a meal at a restaurant on Christmas Day. It was rather surreal to see mundane life on Christmas Day. We foreign teachers didn’t gather to celebrate, having chosen to do so on Christmas Eve.

One of my coworkers, we’ll call him Alan because that’s his name, loved Christmas. Alan was the only Brit on staff. He and i in a sea of Canadians. We shared an interest in history, the same general taste in music and a dark, dry sense of humor. The Christmas Eve potluck was scheduled to be at the apartment he and his wife, Hyun-ah, shared. Over his nearly eight years in Korea, Alan had collected a fair bit of Christmas decoration. Some of it had been sent from home; some of it found in Korea; and all of it earned the superlative “tackiest”. I think he liked it because it was, particularly when fully assembled in a small apartment, way over the top.

It was a lovely time. There is something special about expatriate holiday celebrations that sets them apart. It isn’t so much the sense of celebrating your own holidays in a foreign setting as it is finding the ground of the celebration…why it is special. My Russian Thanksgiving was much the same: two Americans trying to find a damned turkey and attempting to cook it in a Russian oven with all the trimmings to serve an Austrian, a Russian and two Finns. And the two Americans pulling it off before doing a shot of vodka for each person’s giving of thanks. (Russian drinking was the only tradition we added.) These sorts of holiday celebrations always bubble to the top in memory, they stand out because they run just a little deeper.

They do so even when there is nothing particularly special about them. Christmas Eve with Alan and Hyun-ah was nothing more than the lot of us sitting down to a meal together. Together being the operative word that made it special. I think that Big Guy Jr. would approve.

We also invited our Korean partner teachers, because we liked them and because holidays abroad are best enjoyed with native participation. One of them brought a cake…

My apologies, but some of this won’t make sense without another digression. Korean food is some of the best in the world. I only missed two things: apple pie and bread. If you’re ever tempted to move to Korea and you love bread, then you simply must purchase a Euro-spec bread maker (for the voltage requirement and the fact that most Korean apartments don’t have an oven). Korean bakery products are horrible in a imitate-the-worst-of-American bakery fare way. It’s one of those things that they seem to just not get. For example, cakes are not native to the peninsula and they’re associated with birthdays to the degree that they come with candles.

As i said, one of the Koreans had brought a cake. While removing it from the box, she asked, “What do you sing when you light the candles on the Christmas cake?”

Alan and i pounced. We stared down the well-meaning Canadians who were ready to explain everything to Ginny as it really is. What fun would that have been? None, zip, zero, zilch. Have you ever had one of those moments that felt like you’d been waiting a lifetime for its arrival, that you’d been somehow prepared without preparing for it? This was one of those. Our story was seamless, corroborated (by the two of us and getting the Canadians to keep their mouths shut) and, consequently, believable.

You guessed it. We lit the candles on that cake and sang a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. See how logical that is? It was also tear producing, side-splitting funny. We went through it twice because once wasn’t enough and there was special emphasis when a couple of us added, “You look like a monkey and smell like one too.” The poor Koreans took it very seriously, as you should the important traditions of other cultures.

I still sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus every year, even if just quietly to myself. And i like to think that there are still a couple of Koreans believing — and hopefully disseminating the information — that Americans eat the traditional Christmas Cake on Christmas Eve and we sing before blowing out the candles.


~ by Lex on December 22, 2009.

One Response to “Happy Birthday dear Jesus”

  1. Classic.

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