IF POSSIBLE, the already scenic Seoul becomes even more so around Christmastime. Featuring all the hallmarks of a Nat King Cole carol, the city overflows with chestnuts roasting on food carts, ready to be made into yul-lan*, hip-hopified yuletide carols blast from stores, and folks dressed like modish Eskimos flaunt their long puffer coats. More distinctively in South Korea, December also begets ice-skating, cafe-hopping and sightseeing in twos. In this way, Christmas in Korea is primarily a loud, unofficial reiteration of Valentine’s Day and how much the nation glorifies young love. At the same time, single people, or “singletons,” typically experience a corresponding sort of ostracization. However, as the recent hon-jok** subculture has quietly bloomed into a more statistically prevalent phenomenon, it is increasing a space where singles can settle and their so-called “loneliness” can gradually be de-stigmatized. This solo culture opens up a myriad of dining, wining and socializing experiencesthat are slowly being reconciled with the couples’ equivalents, demonstrating that Christmas is a time where both cultures can merrily co-exist.
A very secular Christmas
The primarily secular nature of a couples’ Christmas may seem peculiar considering that South Korea has a strong Christian demographic, being “second globally in its number of active Christian missionaries”, according to Forbes Magazine. However, sociologist Han Gil-Soo from Monash University explains that the notion of Christmas as a commercial event arrived and settled in Korea well before the spirit of Christianity. Per Forbes Magazine, in 1945, at the end of Japanese imperialism in Korea, only 2% of Koreans practiced Christianity. Then with the following temporary U.S. governance, Christmas became a federal holiday and was imported as a Western tradition later fueled by consumerism.
Today, Korean Christmas still borrows tenets of American and European Christmas like Santa Claus (referred to as Santa har a beo ji) and the Celtic red-green color palette. Han says this “reflects a feature of American society, freedom and desire for Western modernity and extreme commercialism.” Moreover, two prominent national family holidays already exist in Korea: Chuseok and Seollal. These are the country’s equivalents to Thanksgiving and New Year’s, where much of the celebratory activities—family gatherings, traditional feasts, and showing respect to ancestors—would be redundant if performed for a third time on Christmas.
A season for two
Since Christmas in Korea lacks religious or family-oriented aspects of the holiday, it becomes the perfect candidate for another couples’ celebration. The conspicuous coupledom similarly reflects a sense of robust Western consumerism. Hotels like Conrad Seoul and Grand InterContinental are replete with Christmas packages that offer cheese platters, red wine, jazz performances and fine dining. Even love motels can be booked up to three months in advance for Christmas Eve, according to Forbes Magazine. As a result, Christmas has been enveloped in the already strong, nearly all-consuming couples’ culture in South Korea, merging with the plethora of romantic holidays in addition to Valentine’s Day.
Though to some it may seem superfluous to specifically celebrate events like White Day and the self-explanatory Kiss Day, Wine Day, and Movie Day, the multiplicity of these romantic holidays all celebrated on the 14th of each month just goes to show the unavoidable influence of the couples’ phenomenon on young adulthood. As if these holidays are not enough, Korean couples also normally celebrate numerous anniversaries, marking the 100th, 500th, and 1000th day from their official meeting. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for couples to use these events as opportunities to broadcast their romantic pursuits to the world by flaunting their relationships on social media, or through fashion and accessories that outwardly present them as “together.” Society has adapted to these trends with stores that specialize in couples’ merchandise, with no scarcity of coordinating phone cases, shoes, and watches, only to name a few. There are even cafes where custom rings can be handmade on a date. In an interview with Refinery29, a young Korean compared the concept of wearing matching outfits to the way a sports team wears matching uniforms to demonstrate a sense of unity.
The sheer power and intensity of a couples’ culture can be trivialized by some as mere superficiality, interpreting it as much of the glorification of love being expressed through material means. However, it can also be traced back to the innate competitiveness that South Korean society retains. There exists an outgrowth of work culture and high value on self-presentation, both in the physical and social sense. Therefore, unabashedly exhibiting an idyllic dating experience provides for increased social capital, regardless of what underlying realities a relationship may hold.
When two’s a crowd
While couples might use Christmas as an excuse to parade matching Nordic leg warmers and perpetually update their social media, single people become unsettled. Especially around this time of year, the active celebration of coupledom does carry with it an unspoken, yet intense stigmatization of singledom. This attitude is exemplified in the designation of April 14 as “Black Day,” which is meant to be a “singles-dedicated day” but really just condones public self-berating for being alone. On this day, singles cluster together to solemnly eat ja-jang-myeon, noodles drowned in shiny black sauce appropriately colored to symbolize their inner emotional mechanics and expressing to every sympathetic spectator that their hearts leak tar. Such pejorative framing of being alone depicts singles as lonely, and singledom as socially undesirable.
The negative attitudes that surrounds solitude can partially be explained by the high value placed on group culture within South Korea. The collectivism entrenched in South Korean culture assumes that groups bind and mutually obligate individuals, placing priority on in-group goals and subordinating personal ones. This may partially explain why South Korea is especially critical of loneliness because solitude is atypical as per their cultural paradigms.
Many aspects of Korean work life incorporate customary social outings which involve copious amounts of drinking, such as hwe-sik*** for office workers and “MTs”**** for university club members. Even fundamental aspects of Korean culture, like their gastronomy, cater to socializing; dishes like bu dae jji gae*****, dak-gal-bi****** and Korean barbeque naturally entail conversation over a huge pot of food, which would be more of a feat to finish alone than a meal. This all makes doing activities in solitude an anomalous sight and abnormal to traditional expectations within public spaces.
However, somewhat of a haven for singles existing outside the genus of group cultures can be found in the steady acceptance of the hon-jok phenomenon, which is gradually dismantling the ignominy of isolation. Singledom is now not so much an automatic default to being half a pair as it is a conscious choice to abstain from relationships. All year round, acts of hon-bap, hon-sul and hon-yeong, eating, drinking and cinema-going alone, have become established trends and a part of the “loner culture,” particularly in young people.
With this rise in individualism, the demographic of individual consumers is more tangible than ever in the unprecedented number of single-patron seats in restaurants and cinemas. Individualism is gaining not only clout but economic force, indicated by statistics showing a higher percentage of single-households and the markets catering to them. For example, sales of palm-sized “apple watermelons” are increasing, attributable to greater demand for smaller portions, while white-goods manufacturers are profiting from downsized home appliances like washing machines and rice-cookers for one. For some, the reason for this phenomenon is as simple as scarcity of time and money to socialize due to demands of work. Though for others who see themselves as part of a generation where simply working hard does not guarantee a successful future, rearranging priorities to suit individual needs is apt. There is proof that the young Korean society is redefining alone outside of loneliness, emancipating singles who have found peace in their solitude.
Being alone together
However, even after a few years of hon-jok culture being on the public radar, embracing singledom does not entirely serve as an even foil to the coupledom that underpins many interactions within young Korean society, particularly during the Christmas season. Marketed events “for singles” sometimes still translate to matchmaking events, as a result of the societal assumption that singledom is not necessarily a choice for everyone, but rather a circumstantial condition to be remedied or pitied. For example, the Korean cinema corporation Megabox hosted various singles-only screenings around Christmas in 2013, where men and women could apply to be seated next to a person of the opposite sex in hopes of striking up a conversation. If the two singles appeared to be compatible and hit it off, they would be rewarded with free movie tickets for their next visit to the cinema.
A more conspicuous example would be the event agency Nim-yeon-sy’s “Battle of the Singles” that took place at Yeouido Park on Dec. 24, 2012, where almost 35,000 voluntary singles were invited to a mass blind date. The event attracted corporate interest with over 200 companies offering complementary products for participants. Companies such as dating app I-Um and outdoor clothing brand K2 gave their single employees paid leave for Christmas Eve to allow them to participate. Similar matchmaking events have featured sponsored clothing, makeup and hair products, with some firms even offering free dating locations for duos who meet at their holiday promotions, according to The Korea Times.
Some might consider such events to be condescending towards singledom by illuminating their “unfortunate” condition, since being reluctantly single and reveling in one’s singledom are two different experiences. For example, according to a survey conducted by Korea Exposé, the reasons some diners choose to eat solo include enjoying the ability to choose their own menu and eat at their own pace or being able to save money. Hence, the popularity of restaurants that provide only single servings has increased. Individual consumers are now able to indulge unabashedly in everything from ramen and drinks to sam-gyeop-sal****** and bo-ssam*******. There are even coin no-rae-bangs, tiny private karaoke cubicles, for individuals to sing in the comfort of their own company. Even Megabox’s Coex Branch features a designated row of single seats, users of which do not have to worry about their neighboring cinemagoers.
Being lonely and being alone are not synonymous. Loneliness is a state of mind, while being alone is merely a state of existence that does not necessarily govern a person’s worldview. Being alone together, on the other hand, is an opportunity that singles can seize around Christmastime.
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Though Christmas might still dominantly remain a couple’s holiday, and does not transpose the Western traditions of religious or familial orientation, hon-jok culture opens up spaces in habitually group-oriented places for singles to recapture the holiday season for themselves and nobody else. Instead of shuffling through Myeongdong’s tourist-choked streets to buy overpriced street food, or wearing questionable Nordic apparel in an unforgiving combination of red and green, singles are at the liberty to do whatever their hearts desire because the social expectation of loneliness superimposed on doing things alone is being unraveled. Through the hon-jok lens, solitude is not loneliness, but a quiet, intensely introverted journey towards personal gratification.
*Yul-lan: Korean cookies made of chestnuts.
**Hon-jok: A portmanteau of hon (alone) and jok (tribe), refers to the increasingly observable behavior of spending time and finding peace in one’s solitude
***Hwe-sik: Gatherings of work colleagues engaging in bonding activities, with copious amounts of drinking and eating involved to get to know one another better
****MT: Short for ‘membership training’, gatherings of club members in universities where bonding and drinking games are played
*****Bu dae ji gae: Also known as Korean army stew, made with kimchi, spam, noodles, red pepper paste and various vegetables
******Dak-gal-bi: Chicken, vegetables and rice cakes stir-fried in red pepper paste sauce
*******Sam-gyeop-sal: Grilled pork belly
********Bo-ssam: Sliced and boiled pork belly served with lettuce, kimchi, garlic and sauces to be made into wraps