How to celebrate Christmas in a non-Christian country? Because I had showed up in South Korea unauthorized with only a suitcase of clothes https://thedaysforward.com/second-infantry-division-education-program-1973/, there were few options for decorations or familiar Christmas trimmings. It was hard to get to the big PX in Seoul, so it wasn’t possible to depend on that as a source of Christmas decorations for our home in a Korean house in downtown Ui Jong Bu. Bill’s current jeep driver, who had been in his battery in Augsburg, Germany where we had previously been stationed, was a native of South Korea and told us that there was a Christmas tree market in Seoul where we could find a Christmas tree. Wow! Great! When can we go? Not that easy, of course, for a battery commander to take time off to go get a Christmas tree.
When the time came, we had to catch a kimchi-cab (a tiny three-wheeled car common in Korea at that time) at the gate of Camp Stanley that was willing to take us to Seoul. That was the only way to get there in a timely manner and to have a way to get the Christmas tree back to Ui Jong Bu – can you imagine trying to take a Christmas tree on an hour long ride on a bus? A small kimchi-cab would have to do. That became the plan.
We never found the Christmas tree market. Disappointed, we had the cab driver turn around and head back to Ui Jong Bu. As we were driving through the busy streets of Seoul, I noticed a flower shop. “STOP! BACK UP.” Why? Outside, on either side of the flower shop door were two small potted pine trees. We rushed into the flower shop. Finding the owner, we tried to ask him if we could buy one of the trees. We had a language problem having to use a lot of hand signals – no English for him and little useful Korean for us. (I had taken a course in the Korean language, but I only learned practical words like how to direct a taxi cab driver to get me from Camp Stanley to our place in Ui Jong Bu: “right”, “left”, “straight ahead”.) The owner was surprised and dumbfounded by the two crazy Americans who came running into his shop at dusk waving their hands pointing to the trees outside. Eventually, he understood what we wanted. It was a hard decision for him, but he soon agreed, and we were heaving one heavy potted tree to the kimchi cab. The flower shop owner was not the first one that day who would be dumfounded by our actions.
The kimchi cab driver, already wondering what was going on, was stunned when we came towards his cab carrying the potted tree. It wasn’t so small when we tried to get it into his cab. I barely fit in the back seat with the tree, but with me and the tree filling the back seat, there was no room for Bill. He had to fit himself into the tiny front passenger seat, knees to his chin throughout the hour-long drive. Luckily, the cab driver accommodated our weird requests.
Getting back to Ui Jong Bu, we piled out of the cab, opened the gate to our Korean home and found our Korean landlords and their four children watching the spectacle. What in the world were we doing dragging a live tree into their home? (We had done other odd things that they remembered. https://thedaysforward.com/a-refrigerator-in-korea-1973/ ) Luckily, the husband worked at Camp Red Cloud only a few blocks away and knew about American Christmas customs, so that he could explain to his wife and family what we were doing.
For me, the next step was how to make the pine tree into a Christmas tree. I eventually conceived a plan (no internet purchases were possible back then). I made a trip the few blocks to Camp Red Cloud to see what they might have in their Shoppette and eventually found in the Camp Stanley PX Shoppette some candy canes, a little ribbon and got out some paper and scissors; with them I made a lot of paper snowflakes to place on the boughs of the tree.
adorns the Rice Christmas tree each year
When I was finished, the little pine tree looked festive in our Korean home. On Christmas Day we were able to go to Christmas Mass at the chapel and to the Mess Hall for dinner with the soldiers of Bill’s battery at Camp Stanley.
To extend our holiday festivities, we decided to invite the ladies that worked with me at St. Louis High School and their husbands over for New Year’s Eve. Bill had given me a beautiful Korean brass punchbowl, matching cups and ladle for Christmas along with a sewing machine. We would have punch for our New Year’s Eve party!
We decided upon having eggnog for our guests. It was homemade: lots of eggs and cream and some bourbon from the Class VI store. Our American guests liked our eggnog. We invited our Korean landlords in for some snacks and eggnog. They didn’t like it one little bit! They are not used to milk products, so it was overwhelming for them – oh, well, we had tried to be hospitable! They liked the hot buttered rum that we served, too, but the brass cups weren’t too good for the hot liquid – oh, way too hot to even hold the metal cup, let alone drink it until it cooled!
It was a most unusual Christmas season, but a memorable one! And the punchbowl, besides being a wonderful memory of an unusual Christmas, was used for many celebrations during Bill’s 27-year Army career. Even so, I don’t think we ever made homemade eggnog or hot buttered rum, again!
**This photo gives you an idea of what a “kimchi”cab looked like. We were unable to find a photo the kimchi-cab prevalent in South Korea in the 1970’s. This truck would have been better than the car to transport our tree, but then there would have been no room for Bill and me! If anyone has a photo of a kimchi-cab from the early 1970’s, please leave a comment on the story. We would love to have a copy.