My Winter Holidays In North Korea

Just because it's cold, it doesn't stop us partying, eating, singing and dancing for the DPRK's New Year celebrations.
January 2nd, 2013

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Lisa L asks:

What are New Years and Christmas celebrations like in North Korea and how do people manage to survive the cold?

Living in North Korea I had never heard about the concept of Christmas and as a result, Santa never brought me any gifts. There are no religious holidays in the North: all of the national holidays are decided by the government. It wasn’t until I moved to South Korea that I found out about the concept of Christmas.

But while we don’t have Christmas in North Korea, there is nevertheless a holiday atmosphere at roughly the same time for people there to enjoy. That is because we celebrate the birthday of Kim Jung Suk (mother of Kim Jong Il) on December 24 and it’s a holiday with lots of cultural activities.

At this time me and my friends would perform songs and dances to celebrate Mother Kim Jung Suk. Also, as part of the holiday it would be common to sing the “Song of Loyalty Gathering” in schools and workplaces. I was always surprised at being picked as a member of a quartet to sing this, even though I wasn’t as good as the solo singers.

But it wasn’t just government holidays that we’d be celebrating in late December.  Around this time of the year we’d also have lots of year-end parties. These were nothing special, but mainly just gatherings of college and school friends or close neighbors. These were great times to catch up about life.

For New Year’s people normally have two to three days off work for their holidays. During this time families make special New Year’s food and share it with their neighbors and friends. Before the big day  mothers tend to cook things like Dduk (rice cake), Korean pancakes (Jeon) and so on.

On the first actual day of the new year it is common for people to do a new year’s bow to their grandparents (Saebae) and then receive a cash gift (Saebtdon) in return.  Many people also use the day to say hello to the senior citizens of the town, teachers, or even their bosses. Some families even celebrate the day by taking a group photo for New Year to commemorate the occasion.

Me personally: after paying a visit to my grandmother, I would often visit my teacher on New Year’s Day with fellow classmates. I really enjoyed these times with us all together at the teacher’s house and once to remember the occasion we all went to take a picture together.  As you probably know, there aren’t many cameras or cellphones in North Korea so we used to have to go to special photo studios to get these pictures taken and developed.

What do family members do?  Well, during winter holidays, my dad and other men often used to play card games whilst my mother and other women would enjoy chatting about the year that had past. Normally young people would all gather in one house at night for dancing and singing. All-day programs broadcast on TV also added to the holiday atmosphere (these were unusual because normally they just showed programmes for a few hours each day).

As you can probably guess, around this time of year North Korea has the coldest weather. Because my house was close to the mountains, we used to have to get wood to help keep things heated up when it got cold. Most of the heating in North Korean houses is still made using the Ondol system (Korean floor heating system) and we used this wood to power the fire.  These Ondol systems are quite good, since they allow you to heat the house while also cooking your dinner at the same time. Since my house was already in the countryside and near the wood in the mountains, the cost for my family’s heating was actually cheaper than those living in large cities.

I remember that people living in big cities had to use coal for heating their homes, a very expensive alternative to wood. As such, some people in cities installed electronic heating systems to keep warm, but these were illegal and people risked penalties if they were caught.  Because of this I guess many people had a hard time in cities during the winter. This was certainly the case for my relatives, for when I visited them in a nearby city during winter I often had to come home early because of the cold. Times like that actually made me feel proud about the house we had in the countryside since it never got as cold there!

During this time of year when the holidays are in full swing, I think about my life in North Korea more than usual. Even though life in the DPRK was not always materially full, I miss my time with family and friends during the holidays.  Indeed – holidays always remind me about them more. This time of year also makes me feel bad for those people who have to endure the cold weather in North. I just wish they could have warm houses like most people do in South Korea.

Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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Jae Young Kim