As an atheist country North Korea does not celebrate Christmas, though many of its citizens are aware of the holiday.
New Year’s is a different story. Like their Southern brethren, North Koreans drink and party on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The holiday season in North Korea has a unique twist to it, though, with the birthday of Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, celebrated on December 24.
As a notable heroine in North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong Suk’s birthday is commemorated by many women’s organizations throughout the country. Many North Koreans visit her tomb at Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery and pay a silent tribute to “the woman commander of Mount Paektu who set a noble example of devotedly defending the leader and devoted her all to the liberation of the country and happiness of the people.” However, most North Koreans do not receive a day off from work for this holiday.
“North Koreans are not allowed to celebrate any holiday in the Gregorian calendar but the New Year,” Aliou Niane, a Guinean who studied in Wonsan, North Korea from 1982-1987, told NK News. “I remember students from Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, Lesotho and of course Guineans celebrating Christmas Eve every year without the Koreans in our dorms. We would move chairs and beds in order to make room for a party. The next morning we would go to school again.”
According to Felix Abt, a Swiss entrepreneur who worked in North Korea for seven years, expats would often celebrate Christmas in a European embassy in Pyongyang. Christian churches in Pyongyang would also be quite busy on Christmas day.
“Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law in the DPRK, so these churches serve a propaganda value. In reality, they are little more than Potemkin churches,” Matthew Reichel, founder of the Pyongyang Project, said. “Some DPRK domestic groups in charge of working with foreign Christian aid groups like to bring them to these churches to show them that Christianity exists in the DPRK. It’s a lot more of a show than reality.”
Despite the government’s well-known persecution of Christians and underground churches, North Korean media boasts that prayer services are “held across the country” on Christmas day.
With their country’s unreliable electrical grid, many North Koreans would see Christmas lights as a waste of precious resources, but may not necessarily identify it with Christmas.
“You see Christmas trees in hotels, restaurants, etc but whether these are put there specifically to mark the occasion or not is really up for some debate,” Koryo Tours manager Simon Cockerell, said. “Usually they are just trees decorated with flashing lights, so it’s a Christmas tree if your eyes are trained to see it as such, it’s a tree with lights on it if they aren’t.”
Abt recalls a Christmas tree, located in front of the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (SDC) in Pyongyang, which lit up at night. On the opposite side of the road, stood large apartment buildings, occupied by North Koreans, which often went dark after sunset. “The then SDC-director, a devout Christian, told me it was meant for the neighbors to ‘see the light.’ To me it felt more like a provocation since, unlike the SDC, the North Korean neighbors lacked power, light, and running warm water,” Abt told NK News.
What North Koreans lacked in light, they made up in spirit on New Year’s Eve. Monique Macias, the youngest daughter of Equatorial Guinean leader Francisco Macias Nguema, grew up in North Korea. On New Year’s Eve, she said that people would work until the mid-afternoon, 2-4 p.m., and would spend the night with family or friends. Macias also noted that restaurants would be full while many North Koreans would consume beer and soju (rice liquor) on this night. North Koreans, living in the capital city, would also watch live performance shows at Mansudae Art Theater and Pyongyang Indoor Stadium on New Year’s Eve.
New Year’s Day was reserved for family time and honoring the country’s leaders. At his university, Niane remembered how his North Korean classmates would wake up the foreign students in order to bring flowers to the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in Wonsan.
“They will ask us to thank him as the benefactor of the achievements of the previous year and ask him to guide us through the New Year,” Niane said. “Personally, I made it clear that I do not pray to a bronze statue or any other object. I hated that ceremony and refused to participate, which was a source of tension between my Korean roommate and me.”
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
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