As I noted in last week’s Korean Culture Update, Christmas is a popular holiday in South Korea.
Nevertheless, Christmas is seen as a distinctly Christian holiday.
So, did Korea have a seasonal holiday before Christian Christmas?
Yes, Dongji, or the winter solstice, was as significant as Lunar New Year's Day in Old Korea since it was when the days started to become longer than the nights. People offered rituals for the gods and their ancestors on that day, calling it A-Se or little New Year's Day.
Traditionally the winter solstice, which falls on December 22 this year, was a time to makeup a new calendar and mark it with the seasonal sub divisions corresponding with the agricultural seasons. In Korea, this tradition lives on today in the modern practice of giving calendars as year-end gifts.
Although Dongji is no longer considered as big a holiday as Chuseok (Harvest Full Moon) and Seol (Lunar New Year's Day), there still remain important customs associated with celebrating Dongji.
One of the most common customs is cooking and eating red bean porridge, or patjuk.
The reason behind this custom is that Korean people believed that red beans have a mysterious power of driving evil spirits away. In Old Korea, people thought evil spirits hated the red color.
Religious services will also be held on Dongji in many Buddhist temples across the country.