Saturday, December 24, 2005

Korea's First "Official" Christmas Tree

I'm writing a historic novel set in Korea over a century ago. In my research I came upon an account of the first “official” Christmas tree in Korea. Since it is Christmas Eve in Southern California, I thought I’d share the story…

Since the mid 1880s, Anglos merchant, diplomats, and missionaries who lived and worked in Korea celebrated their respective national and religious holidays. Most often these were small affairs as there were few foreigners dwelling in Korea—most Anglos concentrated in the port towns and Seoul. Naturally some Koreans were curious of these strange western ceremonies and started asking questions, especially about Christmas.

The Korean royal family was no exception.
In December 1893, King Kojong and his wife Queen Min became very curious about the holiday and started to inquire about its significance. In fact, Queen Min summoned her closest western friend and personal physician, missionary Lillias Underwood to explain about Christmas. That year on Christmas day, Queen Min sent the Underwood family gifts of expensive cloth and silk screens.

Encouraged by the queen's gesture and aware of the royal family's curiosity, Lillias asked to set up a Christmas tree in the palace--even though it was several days after Christmas.

Accounts tell of Lillias putting a great deal of effort into trimming the tree. When finished Lillias was somewhat disappointed with the results, as “their majesties were too impatient to wait till dark to view it." With no heavy drapes to block the lights from the windows, the full effect of the Christmas tree was “quite spoiled." Lillias cited “the poor little candles flickered in a sickly way in the glaring daylight." Nevertheless in spite of the her concerns , Lillias did introduce the holiday tradition to the Korean court.

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