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Seoul music: How K-Pop is embracing Christmas

South Korea may have been a late adopter of Christmas, says Malcolm Jack, but they’re making it their own as the season of K-Pop singles
Tiffany, Taeyeon and Seohyun from TTS, a sub group of K-Pop band Girls Generation, in their Christmas hit 'Dear Santa'. Image credit: TTS - S.M Entertainment

Once the preserve of hot young pop stars in cosy jumpers gesturing dramatically to virginal snowy landscapes with a suggestive twinkle in their eye, British Christmas music at some point had a bucket of freezing water poured all over its mojo.

A preponderance in today’s year-end charts of charity choirs, novelty YouTubers and miscellaneous has-beens hawking crappy swing records proves that, much as their hormones might still be raging harder than a shoeless John McClane up Nakatomi Plaza, the nation’s youth have long since abandoned the hitherto hallowed festive tradition of screaming at native seasonal dreamboats such as East 17 or Shakin’ Stevens in favour perhaps of gazing longingly beyond our borders.

To South Korea, for instance. Because in the land of K-Pop Christmas is – and I cannot emphasise this enough – big.

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Click a K-Pop Christmas playlist on your favoured streaming service and you will quickly find yourself lost in a labyrinth of soundalike smouldering R&B tracks, merry janglin’ festive covers and painfully overearnest icy ballads sung by an endless procession of clean-cut, good-looking boys and girls resplendent in Santa hats and cosy-fashionable winterwear.

What’s interesting is when you consider it all in the context of South Korea’s paradoxical attitude to Christmas in general.

While half of the country’s 52 million citizens may be non-believers, Christianity has grown to become the country’s majority religion post-WWII – around 20 per cent of South Koreans are Protestant and 10 per cent Catholic, relative to around 15 per cent Korean Buddhists – and as such December 25 is a national holiday, unlike in many neighbouring countries including China and Japan.

Yet, religion actually has very little to do with it – South Korea’s appreciation of Christmas having arrived via America’s considerable influence in the country since 1945, and thus in all of its Coca-Cola sippin’ consumerist glory. Since South Korea’s miraculous economic explosion in the late 20th century, South Korean Christmas has grown into a bonanza of buying beholden only to the religion of capitalism, fit to make our Black Friday look like a sparsely attended car boot sale in Frome.

And in South Korea – a country which recently thanked BTS for boosting the national economy to the tune of something like £3bn a year with the early Christmas present of an exemption from national military service – little else sells quite like K-Pop.

Then there’s all the sex. For young South Koreans, Christmas has none of the family-centric connotations of our celebration – they have two other holidays, Chuseok and Seollal, for all that boring stuff. Instead, Christmas has become something more akin to Valentine’s Day – an excuse to hit the town with friends, go on a date or shack up in a hotel with someone special. Less geese-a-layin’, more get-a-layin’.

Which, in a country with a plummeting birth rate, does the national interest no harm. I’m not suggesting that South Korean Christmas is some sort of state-orchestrated baby-making ruse or anything, but certainly heavy petting under the mistletoe does not appear to be taboo. 

To help illustrate all of the above, here’s a beginner’s guide to some choice festive K-Pop. Just remember, kids – a baby is for life, not just for Christmas.

Exo – Miracles in December

Think E17’s Stay Another Day performed not by a bunch of eskimos who look like they’ve just robbed a petrol station, but rather some handsome and exceedingly serious young fine art students with a side-line modelling for M&S. Solid take-home-to-meet mum material.

Girls’ Generation-TTS – Dear Santa

‘I got a wish list for you to hear,’ coo this sub-unit of Girls Generation in a seductive number addressed to the big man in red. ‘It hasn’t been my kind of year… what about us?’ We’ve all gotten a little needy on the rebound but hitting on Santa is just desperate.

BTS – Christmas Medley

You say “Christmas”, the boyband kings say: “How much?” In an epic medley of seasonal standards performed at last December’s SBS Gayo Daejeon Music festival, a huge TV event, BTS hit every conceivable festive cliché harder than roadkill left by a speeding Chris Rea. The audience screamed like Jesus himself had just dropped a hot guest rap.

GOT7 – Confession Song

The title promises much (Arson? Manslaughter? Massive corporate fraud?), but the song proves an innocent declaration of shy love. Innocent at least until you see the video, in which Santa hat sporting 20-somethings the GOT7 boys sing their confession to, um, schoolgirls in uniform? Inside an actual school? Did nobody think this thing through?

Ailee – I Will Go to You Like the First Snow 

Sweeping streaming records before it like a mechanical plough upon release in 2017, Ailee’s megawatt power ballad has seen her re-climb in the charts every winter since with the stubborn traction of a South Korean Mariah Carey. ‘I wanted to live with you, grow old with you,’ she warbles. ‘Hold your wrinkled hands, and say how warm my life was.’ I’m not crying you’re crying.