It’s hard not to feel nostalgic at Christmastime, but one of the things I don’t miss from North America is the “Christmas creep.” I’m not talking about the department store Santa who always seemed just a bit too keen to have you sit on his lap; I’m talking about the way the Christmas shopping season begins earlier each year and engulfs other holidays. Thanksgiving made a half-hearted stand at Black Friday, but that line has been breached and now even Halloween is under assault. If the architects of the modern holiday season have their way, the U.S. and Canada could soon be in a state of perpetual, all-out Christmas.
Busan, thankfully, is different. This city throws a lot of things at you – careening taxis, short-notice deadlines, loudspeaker trucks – but Christmas isn’t one of them. The holiday here is muted, and very few of the holiday trappings are evident. Gifts are given sparingly or not at all; turkey is just a country you’re discussing with your travel agent; and stockings are hung out on clotheslines with care / in hopes that by morning they’ll be dry enough to wear.
If you’re longing to feel that Christmas vibe in Busan, you have to go find it. The following are some suggestions to help you in your Yuletide quest.
The first thing that signals the approach of Christmas for me is when Starbucks starts selling Toffee Nut Lattes, which frankly don’t leap to mind when I ask myself the obligatory WWBJD? (What would baby Jesus drink?) A better idea is to eat roasted chestnuts in Seomyeon, Nampodong or anywhere street food carts are plentiful. For the full Christmas effect, eat them outdoors while your nose is being nipped by Jack Frost, but bear in mind that Jack Frost doesn’t often make it down this far south, preferring instead to send his understudy, Jack Unseasonably Warm.
You won’t find many Christmas decorations outside of a department store, but an intrepid Christmas reveler can find reasonable alternatives around the city. Head to Gwangalli Beach to admire Busan’s biggest ornament by far: the Gwangan Bridge, which year-round doubles as a roadway and a 750-million-dollar string of Christmas lights. If you’re far from the beach, the neon strip lights that frame the exteriors of any of Busan’s fine love motels may suffice in a pinch to satisfy your craving for festive illumination.
If loitering in dark side streets isn’t your thing, you can always head to a department store, where the Christmas décor is unambiguous: gift-wrapped boxes, blinking lights, and mannequins wearing fur-trimmed skirts and boots that positively scream Ho Ho Ho. There you may also partake in one of the most ancient seasonal traditions: the Orgy of Conspicuous Consumption, a family-friendly throwback to the solstice festivals of pre-Christian Rome, minus the crossdressing, vomiting and propitiations of goat blood to Saturn.
Another great way to get in the holiday mood is to watch a Christmas movie. Check out classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Elf or my all-time favorite Christmas movie, The Godfather. What do a bunch of Italian mobsters have to do with Christmas? Nothing; but then neither do radioactive caribou, anthropomorphic snow zombies or midget sweatshops.
One of the best ways to celebrate Christmas is to have a party. Organize a Secret Santa and exchange hokey gifts with your friends. Sing Christmas carols loud enough to be heard by the neighbor who generously shared her child’s nocturnal piano playing throughout the year. Make eggnog – and then watch it sit there all night because nobody likes eggnog.
Whatever you do, have a Merry Christmas!
John Bocskay blogs about the expat universe at bosmosis.wordpress.com.
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