In his 1959 book Christmas customs around the world, Herbert Wernecke includes this short section on Korea where my grandfather and PCUS missionary Joe B. Hopper details Christmas celebrations in Korea, focusing on a 1955 event where community efforts provided food, entertainment, and gifts to 822 orphans in Chunju.
In Korea, Christmas celebrations are held in various places. In the Christian schools, the student bodies usually present some drama in addition to the more formal service. In the churches, the Sunday schools and young people’s organizations often have their programs earlier, since Christmas Day is occupied by the whole church organization with its special services.
The early-morning caroling is a very happy and impressive part of the program on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, Sunday school children, young people, and some of the church officers gather together in the church and pass the night sleeplessly, dividing into groups. At two o’clock the next morning, they start toward the different sections of the parish, singing hymns in front of every parishioner’s house. Inside the door, the family members wake up and come out to express their thanks. Some families invite them into the house and entertain them with simple provisions. By the time all have been thus favored, the beautiful day is dawning.
The Christmas service of the whole congregation is usually held at half past ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. The church auditorium and the gates are beautifully decorated. In the program of the service, many special features are introduced, such as singing by the church choir and Sunday school children, addresses by the children and by a special speaker. The offering is generally one of money, though many people bring packages of rice and clothes to be given to the poor.
To give us a realistic glimpse, through the description and the implications, we shall let Joseph B. Hopper, a missionary in Chunju, Korea, tell us about “Christmas for 822 Korean Orphans in 1955.”
A thousand little hearts to fill with Christmas joy! A thousand little tummies to fill with hot, steaming rice, beef stew, and kimchi (most famous of Korean appetizers)! This was the reason for the Christmas party for children at four Chunju orphanages and one refugee camp in the vicinity. A dozen or more volunteer workers, inspired and led by Mrs. W. A. Linton, joined a group of teachers from our Girls’ School in preparing the celebration.
Weeks in advance, great jars of kimchi were prepared, a cow was butchered, and five hundred pounds of rice were cooked. Forty students from the mission Bible schools, who serve as Sunday school teachers in these orphanages, worked out an elaborate program for the morning. Lighted Christmas trees decorated the boys’ gymnasium, and two large classrooms were converted into dining rooms complete with small tables and benches.
The day dawned crisp and cold, but this meant nothing to the truckloads of children who drove into town singing gaily. In six-ton trucks furnished by the Korean Civil Assistance Command, they arrived at the gymnasium and streamed inside to sit in rows on the floor. Most wore clothes made by a group of widows whose husbands had been killed by the communists. These women, working with materials supplied by the Korean Civil Assistance Command, have produced literally thousands of garments for the orphanages of the province.
For two hours, the children entertained themselves. Music, recitations, and pageants were produced by children from the Sunday schools of these institutions. The most elaborate pageant presented the whole Christmas story, acted by the big boys of one orphanage. These children, who rarely see things of beauty or enjoy entertainment of any kind, stared starry-eyed at the Christmas tree lights, the stage decorations, and the costumed characters.
But the highlight of the occasion was the feast. A few little spoons found their way to hungry mouths before the blessing was said, but when that was over, it was a sight to behold.
Most of these children get enough to eat regularly, but it is usually a rather monotonous grain mush. Here was steaming white rice, and what more can a Korean want? Grubby hands lifted great chunks of kimchi and literally dropped them into wide-open mouths. When chopsticks and spoons failed to work fast enough, bowls of beef stew were raised to the lips.
Again and again, attendants filled the bowls until no one could eat a bite more.
As the children filed out, they were handed bags of fruit and candy. In addition, each received an especially marked pencil and notebook given by the students of the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools as their Christmas offering.
By actual count, 822 children were fed that day, and the remaining food was taken to the orphanages for those too small to come to the party.
As the trucks moved off loaded with singing children, we could thank God for the opportunity of bringing this Christmas joy to so many who have tasted such bitterness, and of telling them the story of Him who came to seek and to save that which was lost.
Those at home can rejoice that they had a part in this joy through their contributions to the relief budget of the Department of Overseas Relief, which made this happy occasion possible.
All glory be to God on high, And to the earth be peace: Good will henceforth, from heaven to men, Begin and never cease! – Nahum Tate