SEOUL — I DUG MY SPOON into a bubbling pot of chicken stew nearly glowing red with spice as an old recording of Silent Night warbled incongruously in the background. I was battling another cold, an unusual and annoying relapse this early in the winter. But I suppose it was due. My only exercise lately been in the realms of frustration and finger aerobics, with occasional breaks for walking around in the cold and shutter-clicking.
It didn’t feel like the holidays, and in a way that made it easier. Two days before, as I was about to descend a final flight of stairs toward the subway platform and my commute home, the sound of a live band playing Jingle Bells gave me pause. The sound was coming from the other end of the station, down a long, tiled hallway.
For a moment I considered going and taking in the sight. But just as the thought crossed my mind the sound stopped, the notes hushed up while the players took a breather. I turned and went on my way, just as an echoey Hark the Herald Angels Sing! struck up in the background.
The upcoming Christmas will be the first that either my wife or I have ever spent not under our parents roofs. While strings of lights and elaborate department store displays strive to emulate that winter feeling we remember so fondly, a yawning distance between us and all our family and friends has made the hues of the season seem paler, cooler.
Somewhere, there are candles and food and cheer. But in our apartment, there is an empty Papa Johns pizza box (yes, they’re here, too ) and not a spring of pine, a string of garland or a colored bulb to be found.
For all of South Korea’s devout Christians, the holiday has hardly attained the sacred status it carries Stateside. I’ve heard that we can expect many businesses to be open. Which is great — it means I can run out for a bite should I get munchy in the middle of my shift. (Yes, I will be among those poor saps slaving through the holiday.)
In all the superficial ways, Seoul is buzzing with the spirit of Christmas — although thankfully no one has been trampled to death at E-Mart, Lotte Mart or any other discount retailer here. But, for us at least, the warm center is missing.
We’ve heard from folks back home that snow is piling up in Seattle and in Madison, icing over the streets and bringing our cities to a halt. A calm white sweeping over the landscape, keeping people indoors and in front of their fires before the holiday. Here, the air is cold and tinder dry but there’s been barely a dusting of flakes. Everything keeps moving, sighing, hustling.