North Korea celebrates Christmas in its own unique way, as befits its status as a one-party authoritarian state. Christmas is a time for family, togetherness, and celebration, and the same holds true for North Korea, although in a much more restricted form than is the case in other, more open societies. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Christmas is an occasion to mark the birth of the country’s Eternal Leader, Kim Il Sung, although observance of the religious or spiritual aspects of the holiday is still forbidden.
Origin of Christmas in North Korea
Christmas in North Korea has quite an unusual origin story. After the Korean War ended and North Korea was officially recognized as a separate country, the then leader Kim Il-sung was quick to distance his nation from the South, which it saw as a corrupted and exploitative version of capitalism. As such, it quickly established its own holiday, the Day of the Sun, to mark the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth on April 15th. As part of this effort, North Korea banned the celebration of Christmas and other western holidays.
Days of the Sun, or in North Korea’s language, Sok Jang Day, is celebrated on April 15th, as it is believed to be the day of Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912. The event is systematically marked with patriotic events such as parades and military displays. Of course, it is still forbidden to celebrate Christmas in any way. In North Korea, however, Christmas is marked rather differently, with citizens in the country celebrating with a “Day of Solidarity of the World’s Peoples”, which Kim Il-sung declared to celebrate the international working class’s commitment to “global revolution”.
Day of Solidarity of the World’s Peoples
The “Day of Solidarity of the World’s Peoples” in North Korea is meant to look like a modern version of Christmas, with citizens encouraged to exchange small presents with their friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, it is only a hint of its religious roots, as it is the furthest thing from a religious celebration. On this day, North Koreans celebrate their country’s strength, loyalty to the Kim dynasty, economic resources and military might rather than celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. One of the major cultural differences between North Korea and other countries that celebrate Christmas is the lack of a festive atmosphere.
Although the Day of Solidarity of the World’s Peoples has existed since the 1950s, recent years have seen some positive developments in North Korea’s attitude towards Christmas. In recent years, there have been reports of North Korean defectors visiting major cities in South Korea for Christmas, and North Korea is even sending teams of taekwondo demonstrators to the South’s Christmas exhibitions. Christmas decorations are appearing in some North Korean public spaces, and North Korea itself is even encouraging its athletes to bring back foreign Christmas gifts from the Olympic Games.
Reactions from local community
As a result, there seems to be a growing sentiment among the younger generation of North Koreans, in particular, to embrace some of the trappings of the holiday season. Reports suggest that Christmas decorations, such as lights and trees, are popping up in some public spaces, including in train and bus stations. However, despite this seeming openness to Christmas, many North Koreans remain wary of celebrating it, as they are acutely aware of the consequences they could face if they violate the nation’s strict rules against “foreign holidays”.
Influence of Religion
Despite their official stance on Christmas, many North Koreans nonetheless feel the influence of the Christian holiday in their lives. North Korean defectors report hearing Christmas songs in their homes as a child. Although it is not openly celebrated in North Korea, many North Koreans recognize the spirit of the holiday and its religious significance, whether they are Christians or not.
It is important to note, however, that North Korea is a highly oppressive country in terms of religious freedom and the government actively encourages its citizens to oppose religion in any form. This has led to North Koreans proselytizing to their citizens and even to young people who risk their lives to host secret Christmas services in the country. In contrast to the government’s official stance, there has been a recent rise in the number of North Koreans being exposed to Christian beliefs and teachings, albeit in secret.
Despite the restrictions, there are also reports of North Koreans celebrating Christmas in more subtle ways. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feature videos of North Koreans exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols in their homes, although of course these activities are not recognized by the government in any official capacity. However, it is clear that the holiday is slowly gaining traction among the younger generations of North Koreans who are growing increasingly curious about western culture and customs.
Rise of Christianity
In recent years, there has been a significant rise in the number of Christians living in North Korea, many of whom were exposed to Christianity while living in South Korea or China, as well as through contact with foreign missionaries in the North. However, the government of North Korea continues to categorically deny any and all religious activities, so any attempts at organizing a public Christmas celebration are likely to be met with severe punishment.
Despite the strict restrictions, North Korea is a surprisingly diverse country when it comes to celebrating Christmas. While the official stance of the government is to oppose religious activities, there are still signs of a slow movement towards embracing the holiday. For example, more North Koreans are beginning to embrace the practices and trappings of the holiday season and even openly display Christmas decorations. There have also been reports of North Koreans engaging in evangelism, although it is still done in secret. In a way, North Korea’s observance of Christmas could be seen as a sign of progress, albeit a small one.