Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
It’s another festive themed episode! We’re discussing Christmastime in South Korea and Spain with American expat and English teacher, Jesse Sweed. We talk about festive activities in the classroom, the perils of the Secret Santa gift, Spain’s Three Kings Day and how Jesse’s experience of the holidays in three countries has influenced how he celebrates this time of year with his own family.
Oh and a little footnote – I have a “pooping log” question in this interview that seemed to stump Jesse – it turns out, it’s a Catalan Christmas tradition.
Jesse: You are very festive right now. I love it.
Carlie: I feel like I’ve dressed it myself in the room, like, christmassy enough for both of us here. So if you haven’t caught the podcast on YouTube, search Expat Focus, and you can watch as well as listen to this episode. Jesse, you have been an English teacher for the better part of 16 years, and we’re gonna dive into Christmas traditions where you used to live in South Korea and where you’re currently living in Spain. But let’s start with your background. So where are you from and what led you initially to South Korea?
Jesse: Yeah, I’m originally from Pennsylvania and my journey to South Korea actually started here in Seville. I’m in Seville in southern Spain right now and it started with a visit here. I visited my friend who was living and teaching English here, and one day I went with him to observe him teaching his classes. And it was one of those things that, you know, it went from, “Oh, that’s nice for him to do. That’s really cool that he does that” to, “Holy crap, I could do this.” You know, it was one of those.
Carlie: Lightbulb moment.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. Like, I can do this, you know, that would be great for me to do. At the time, in 2006, it was really hard for an American to get a job here in Spain because we’re not part of the EU. So there’s a lot of extra visas, you know, the schools need to pay and I had no teaching experience, I had no certificate, right? But in South Korea we were doing research. You just need a university degree and to be a native speaker, and you can pretty much get an English teaching job anywhere. So I checked both of those categories off.
So, and plus I have done martial arts since maybe 12 for most of my life. And that was a Korean martial art, it was Tang Soo do. So I had some familiarity with Korea. And so I, you know, found a recruiter and sent my resume that I had no idea how to write at the time, but landed a job. I intended to stay for only one to two years and then come back here to Seville after I got my TEFL and some experience. It ended up turned into seven.
Carlie: Wow. Seven years in South Korea. And do you remember your first Christmas there?
Jesse: I remember being almost underwhelmed by it. Yeah, yeah. It was in my first year, so I had been there since August, almost September. So, December, I was still pretty new, three months, I was still pretty new. I didn’t suffer a lot of homesickness. Well, a little bit I guess because we didn’t have Zoom, we didn’t have, you know, Skype wasn’t even really a thing. What I had to do, I had to get those, do you remember those calling cards?
Carlie: The sim card? No, not the sim card. It’s like the rechargeable credit card looking things.
Jesse: Yeah. The credit card. You scratch off the number and then type a 16-digit number. So I talked with friends and family from back at home with those. But I don’t really remember really feeling incredibly homesick. Maybe a little bit, but not enough that I remember. I had a good expat community. You know, those that I worked with, we built up friendships and we were kind of all on the same boat, so we kind of celebrated together.
Carlie: I did some reading online today and I read that in South Korea, Christmas is not a religious holiday, festive event, but they still do mark Christmas.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. I was actually thinking about this interview today and that’s one thing, the commercialization has really spread all over the world with Christmas, but it’s not really a religious thing, it’s like a Santa Claus thing, it’s a family thing. And it’s not even for everybody. Some families will have a tree up, some won’t, things like that.
Carlie: How did the Christmas season influence your teaching of English at that time of year?
Jesse: That’s a good question. So that always gives us a lot of fun activities. When I first started, I was teaching kids, right? And you always have so many cool activities; Christmas cards, Christmas songs, Christmas carols, and the schools, the academies that I taught at, I taught at a kindergarten, an elementary academy, they had some cool things that they set up. So they arranged that we would go to different apartment complexes where the kids lived and we’d go to doors and do Christmas caroling and at Halloween we’d go trick or treating, they’d set it up with the parents.
Carlie: Oh, that’s so cute. And did you learn any South Korean Christmas traditions, like , songs or understand, you know, how they might mark the day?
Jesse: I think, English Christmas carols are more popular there, so they would probably sing Jingle Bells, but maybe not really understand it, but, you know, they were still singing that.
Carlie: And what about food? I’m guessing they don’t roast a turkey in South Korea for Christmas.
Jesse: No, they don’t have that. I don’t think it’s a really big holiday like that. In the United States it’s the biggest international travel day, right? But in South Korea it’s really not. So maybe they would have some extended family come, but it wasn’t really like that. So as far as a traditional Christmas meal, I don’t really think they had that. They have their own Christmas holidays where they would have family come from all over. But Christmas wasn’t one of them that I remember.
Carlie: And what about gifts?
Jesse: Again, not a huge thing, it’s more of a family thing. And at the academy, so, we’d do gift exchanges and things like that for the kids. And then in between the teachers too, we’d do secret santa type things. So they take a lot of, you know, bits and pieces from the Western culture.
Carlie: I don’t know how you feel about Secret Santa, but I actually get really stressed out about having to organize a secret Santa gift. Especially when they put a price limit of say, €10, because it’s so low and you really wanna feel like you’re giving someone a good gift. And so you feel the pressure to possibly spend a little more, but no, really I should stick to €10.
Jesse: And you know what, it’s funny you said that cause when you first asked that question, do I find it stressful? And I was actually thinking about the opposite of you, I was like, “Well, it’s not really stressful if you put specific rules on it, like a price limit.” And I like that because it takes some pressure away, you know, and sometimes if, you know, you do it within work and then sometimes you don’t really know the coworker that much or sometimes, you know, let’s face it…
Carlie: But then you just feel a little lame though, right? Because it’s like; okay, mug, candle, chocolate.
Jesse: Ah, you’ve gotta get creative, then. That’s what it means, you know, you gotta get creative, really.
Carlie: I need some more inspiration.
Jesse: Yeah. One thing we did at the academy here in Spain, because I worked at an English academy and it was actually owned by an American. And so one thing we did, we set the price limit, but also the person everyone wrote on, you know, their name and then on the other side three gifts that they would like.
Carlie: That’s a good idea.
Jesse: Yeah, that was a good idea. So you’re guaranteed to get one of them.
Carlie: Yeah, definitely. I’ve actually seen this Secret Santa website where they let you put a gift wishlist together for your anonymous giver. And I think that is so helpful.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. Because it really is.
Carlie: You don’t want that, you know, you don’t want that moment where you see them opening their gift and they’re just not impressed.
Jesse: “Oh, a spoon.”
Carlie: “Oh, chocolate and a mug. Thanks so much.”
Jesse: Yeah, yeah.
Carlie: So what did you do amongst your expat colleagues when you were in South Korea? How did you celebrate Christmas together? Orphan Christmas as they say.
Jesse: Is that what they say?
Carlie: Yeah. When I was in London it was like, “How are we gonna do our orphan Christmas?” Because no one was with their family.
Jesse: Oh, that’s hilarious! We had some Western places, they were run by Westerners, so they usually had a Christmas dinner, so a bunch of foreigners would come over. And I always remembered that, and for Thanksgiving too, American Thanksgiving.
And I always remembered that was a really cool time because it was people that sometimes you saw in the bars or sometimes you saw here and there because in Korea we kind of stand out. But it was a time when we were all there gathered together. It really was a special time because we are like, as funny as it sounds, we’re gathered together here. And I remember those memories fondly.
Carlie: I had some Muslim friends in Australia who used to say to me that Christmas was the most boring time for them because of the public holidays. And since they didn’t celebrate themselves, it was just annoying because all the shops were closed for a few days. Do things shut down in South Korea over Christmas?
Jesse: No. Maybe Christmas Day, yeah. But it’s the same here in Spain. And I’m sure we’ll get to that. Christmas isn’t a big deal here either. So maybe on Christmas Day some shops will be shut down, but in South Korea, not for like a week or something. And I can see how that would be annoying because I remember in Korea, during big Korean traditional holidays, shops would be shut down and it was kind of annoying to me.
Carlie: For sure. Well, let’s move on to Spain because that’s really interesting that you basically made a full circle and you ended up back there with your teaching career.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. It’s really cool. It’s really cool how it happened. It was always in my sights and it was one of those things, I just, I resigned for another year in Korea and then I changed schools and then resigned again and then changed schools and always kinda upgrading and kind of, I just built my life, you know? And then it was time and I eventually came back here.
Carlie: How did you know it was time?
Jesse: There was a series of events and circumstances that it was just like, this is it.
Carlie: And what about your first Christmas when you moved to Spain? I’m guessing it would’ve been much more traditional than what you might’ve been used to, than in Asia.
Jesse: My first Christmas, it was weird because I moved here in November. So I had only been here for a month, so I didn’t really know many people. And I had my friend who was still living here, but he wasn’t in the city, he was in a different city. And by that time I had been away for Christmas for enough time that it wasn’t really, you know, it sounds like it’s sad, but I didn’t feel it because I felt like, “Holy crap, I’m in Spain, I’m in Seville.” I was still pinching myself, you know what I mean? So that’s what I remember there. And then the following Christmas, I met who became my wife, who eventually became my ex-wife, but…
Carlie: So that’s another podcast.
Jesse: That’s another podcast. But so, and then I’d met her. So then we spent Christmas together and things like that from then on.
Carlie: And I’m guessing it’s much more religious-based in Spain.
Jesse: Yeah. You know what, Christmas is not a big deal. The 25th is almost nothing.
Jesse: So, but what they have, so, Christmas Eve is a bigger deal, but really Christmas, it’s like if they exchange gifts on Christmas, it’s like, you know, socks or chocolate, something that, like a secret Chris Santa thing, really small. But their big day is January 6th where they celebrate they call it the Three Magic Kings, Los Reyes Magos.
And it’s a symbolism of the three wise men. So what they do, it’s the same thing; the three wise men, they come and leave presents and they do that, but it’s the three wise men and they celebrate that like gangbusters. But it’s really weird because it’s January 6th, their Christmas holiday goes from, you know, December 20th, 22nd somewhere, you know, wherever that lies to January 7th. So they celebrate it on the6th. The next day is life like normal.
Carlie: Wow, that’s not too much time to recover. You’ll still have leftovers in the fridge.
Jesse: Yeah. And kids don’t have time to wear their toys out, you know, so it’s kind of weird. So a lot of families are kind of pushing that back and dividing it. But traditionally January 6th is the big day.
Carlie: And January 6th you said there’s only a small tokenistic kind of presence at Christmas, but January 6th, are they getting the doll houses, the bikes, the beyblades or whatever the tie of the moment is?
Jesse: Because imagine, Santa’s one person bringing presents and the Three Kings.
Carlie: Oh, you’ve got three Kings giving you presents.
Jesse: Yeah. Three Magic Kings.
Carlie: What are their powers?
Jesse: Well, apparently going around the world dropping presents off. I’ve asked that too, if they could fly or they climb up the walls like Spider-Man. I didn’t wanna ask too much because I was always in the presence of kids. So I didn’t want them to connect the dots because of like, “Well Jesse asked that.”
Carlie: Jesse, I don’t know if I have my country right, but I was reading someone’s blog and I’m pretty sure it was Spain and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with a log that pooped out chocolate or something at Christmastime. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Jesse: Believe it or not, something like that sounds familiar, but, I don’t know, it might just be something…
Carlie: It sounded very strange to say.
Jesse: Yeah, the only thing I’m thinking about is the Easter Bunny, but that’s definitely an American thing and it’s really weird.
Carlie: No, it was something, it was about some kind of tradition where you buy a log and take it home at Christmas, and the kids get treats from it or something. Clearly it’s not in your part of Spain.
Jesse: No, I don’t remember the present log.
Carlie: The pooping log. Okay, cool.
Jesse: I don’t remember that.
Carlie: What is Seville like at Christmastime?
Jesse: So, December 6th is when they turn on all the street lights and all the Christmas trees and everything. So you’ll go down, it’s very festive looking. They have Christmas lights and decorations lighting up the streets. It’s a really beautiful city, actually. The color of the lights mixed with the colors of the buildings, it’s a really nice amber color. It’s really cool.
But then they have Christmas lights and snowflakes, reindeer, things like that. And they have a big Christmas tree in the center, too. And so they celebrate it. I just saw a poster for a movie called Santa vs the Three Kings. So that looks like it would be fun. But yeah, so they’re celebrating more, Three Kings is really the big thing.
You know, some people do Santa, if they have kids they’ll do Santa, usually not, you know, whatever. But the Three Kings is the big day. But I think it’s moving more and more towards homogenizing both.
Carlie: The Coca-Cola Santais infiltrating Spanish tradition, too.
Jesse: Yeah, I mean it really is. You see them more and more, you know, in shops and things anyway, you know, that’s all marketing really. I did in South Korea and here they did Santa visits. So especially in South Korea, I, you know, sometimes I was the only male teacher and then sometimes not. But, you know, sometimes you’d put on the sand outfit and it’d take them three seconds to see that your, you know, teacher Jesse.
And then sometimes here too at the after school academies, they’d have somebody come in at Santa Claus and, you know, do the wish and things like that. So the English academies, they really, you know, make an effort to integrate culture into the language learning, which is really cool.
Carlie: Yeah, even in my French classes here in Strasbourg, the teacher will show us a French Christmas song and we’ll have to learn how to sing it, which is mildly embarrassing in a room full of adults. And, you know, we have specific Alsatian traditions here that we learn about. And Strasbourg being the capital of Christmas, the Christmas markets are going off right now. What about in Seville, have you got Christmas markets locally?
Jesse: Yeah, they have those. They have those, they’re really cool. And then they have some rides for kids around there too. Some little mini rides. Yeah.
Carlie: What can you tell me about what Spanish families eat at Christmastime or Three Kings time, if that’s the bigger meal?
Jesse: That’s it, yeah. So, Christmas Eve sometimes we don’t even have dinners with the in-laws, you know. But the Three Kings time, it’s, you know, a huge spread of, they have the Spanish ham. Have you ever had that?
Carlie: I’ve seen it. I’m pescatarian myself, so I’m sure I’m missing out.
Jesse: Okay, so there’s that. There are all sorts of different kinds of meat. It’s very meat-centered, right? So different types of meats and porks and chicken and then vegetables. So it’s just a big spread. So there’s not really that one central focus. Ours is ham, you mentioned Turkey. That’s more Thanksgiving for us, right? But there’s not that centerpiece here, but it’s just a ton of food. It’s a lot.
And then some to take home and some to stay for, you know, leftovers too. They have that too, just leftovers. So, the night before the Three Kings would be the main dinner and that would be that giant spread. And then with kids, we have the kids there, and so the Three Kings would come the night before on the 5th to leave one present each.
So, you’d set it up, somebody would leave and then knock on the door like, “What’s that?” Or pretend someone knocked on the door, like, “The Three Kings came!” and then they’d come and open up one of their presents. That’s the eve before. And then that’s where we have the big dinner. And then usually in our case then on the 6th we’d go over for other presents openings and then our lunch would be the leftovers from the dinner before.
Carlie: How much American tradition do you think you’ve brought to your Spanish family?
Jesse: Christmas? None. In my in-law family that I had: none. No, they were very Spanish. But as far as our family, it’s really cool because our kids get two kinds of big celebrations. So my family back at home, we weren’t big on presents, we weren’t big on, I loved Christmas time, but I always say, I loved December 1st through the 24th.
The 25th to me was always kind of anti-climatic. It’s klike, you wake up with the excitement and then you open presents and then it’s almost dead. Then we’re waiting to go to our grandmother’s house for dinner or something like that. And then it’s like a normal what would be Sunday, but the whole Christmastime. So what we do is I usually took care, well, I didn’t usually take care, I take care of Christmas and so I get my tradition and what I think would be the best Christmas for the kids, you know?
And then their mother takes care of the Three Kings, so they do it that way. So it’s really cool. So in my case it’s, I usually do one main present and then some little things. And because to me less is more. And I think I get that a lot from my mom. She’s not very, like, when I say very, not at all materialistic. Gift giving, she’s always an awkward receiver and unless it’s a very sentimental thing or has a story and I’m kind of the same way.
Carlie: So you’re Instilling that in your kids.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah. And it’s funny to see how they react to it. I can tell my daughters the same way and it’s like less is more to me. One big present will say a lot that is meaningful says a lot more than 50 really cool presents because they’re cool because they’re, you know, shiny or whatever, you know what I mean?
Carlie: So, I kind of secretly openly wish my family was like that because growing up we didn’t have a lot of money, but for us it was all about quantity. So even if it was socks or marbles or a small thing, it was about how many things you got to unwrap on Christmas day, which is great. And you know, my parents even in hard years made our Christmases really special with that approach.
But now as adults in my family, it’s still about presents and quantity. So I’m at the age now where I would love it if my family just gave up on giving each other gifts and focused on the grandkids only. But instead every year we still have this silent expectation that every adult still gives and receives gifts even if they’re not really high value. It’s about how much you get to unwrap on Christmas day. It’s exhausting, could I just say?
Jesse: Yeah, that’s kind of how my in-laws are, yeah. And I’m always like, you know, that’s way too much.
Carlie: I feel we’ve just created a rod for our own backs because do you know how much I post to Australia organized to get delivered just to make sure everyone’s got something physical that they can, you know, get into?
Jesse: Yeah. And then trying to make sure everyone has the same amount and…
Carlie: Value and is it, yeah.
Jesse: And a number of things, !Yeah, but they only have three things and they have five.” And it’s like, yeah.
Carlie: Oh, I was totally the kid who would, you know, look at my santa sack of presents and count how many things I had and glance over at my sisters just to double check that we were even, it was all about always about making sure we had the same, you know?
Jesse: Yeah, so it’s really cool because they’re more that way, I’m more that way. But it’s cool because Christmas is my day. And then the Three Kings is their day and it’s kind of cool. And that’s through the separation it’s cool too, because they’re spending time with me and then they spend their day with them. I have no problems then she has no problems. We have a really peaceful and respectful separation too. So it’s great. It works perfectly.
Carlie: And do you put up a Christmas tree for the kids?
Jesse: Yeah, we do a Christmas tree. Even they do Christmas trees here. They put up Christmas trees here.
Carlie: Coming from Australia where Christmas is in summer and it’s less common to have a live Christmas tree. Plastic trees are pretty much the norm for most people.
Jesse: I’d imagine.
Carlie: It is so special to me to be in France and every year, when it gets nice and chilly, go to the guys selling the trees and pick out a tree and just smell that fresh pine smell. I know it’s not the most environmental way to go, but it’s so cool to have a live Christmas tree and in the right season
Jesse: It could be argued that it’s more environmentally-friendly to have a live tree.
Carlie: Well, I’ve read about these businesses. Well, is it really alive anymore when you’ve cut it from the base?
Jesse: An organic tree.
Carlie: Organic, that’s the word. And what about wreaths? Because here in Strasbourg we also have the Christmas wreaths with the candles.
Jesse: So we did the paper chains of 25 days and this was when I was in school. I’ve started doing it here too with my kids.
Carlie: I love these Christmas cultural comparisons cause we’re learning new things.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah, totally. So we’d so, actually I didn’t do it this year, I should have. But yeah, we’d create Christmas chains and then every day you rip one off. But they’re, you know, paper chains.
Carlie: It sounds like an advent calendar, but of a chain variety.
Jesse: Yeah, maybe. So it’s like a countdown to Christmas. So what I’d do, I’d hang it up and then my daughter’s really artistic, so I’d be like, “Draw Santa Claus.” or, “Draw a Rudolph.” or, “Draw something of Christmas.” and then she’d draw it, put that on the top and then hang the chain down. And then every day we would rip one off.
Carlie: And do you do anything with the chain or is it just to get closer and closer to Christmas?
Jesse: We make a ceremony and pray to the…
Carlie: Possibly not.
Jesse: No, no.
Carlie: Jesse, I’m curious to know if your experience of different holiday traditions in different countries has made you reflect much about how you celebrate these traditions and what it has. We talked a little bit about how it’s influenced how you celebrate the season with your kids, but have you really kind of taken anything from your experiences in South Korea and the United States that you know, you really inject into your festive season in Spain?
Jesse: That’s interesting. So not really. I think the biggest thing is, which I guess going back to your first question about what my memory was about Christmas in South Korea, it was kind of nice to escape the American commercialism to be honest. That’s something that is getting out of control a little bit. And it was nice to separate from that and not have that pressure of buying presents, cause if you’re not there, it’s, you know…
Carlie: It’s easier to opt out, right?
Jesse: Yeah, it’s easier to opt out. And, you know, I’d send presents in March just because I wouldn’t get around to mailing it or something like that, which is cool because then they’d get it and my family loved it. It’d be a surprise in March, Christmas presents in March, so that’s cool. So it’s nice to be out of that. But even so, you’re not out of it because they have commercialism here and it’s a commercial holiday here, but there’s less pressure I feel. Well, there was less pressure. Now that we have a family, then there’s pressure again. But it’s like you dictate that pressure, right?
So like I said, I got my daughter a bike, it was a second hand bike and it’s really cool because there’s a decal with her name on it. We put a decal of her name on it and my son some roller blades. He’s five and it’s something he’s wanted for a while. So I’m like, oh, that’s perfect, you know? So I guess I didn’t really take anything. It’s just you can kind of dictate your own Christmas terms.
Carlie: Have your kids experienced Christmas back in the United States?
Jesse: No, no. I’m looking at next year. I’m hoping next year they will get to see it. Although my family moved from Pennsylvania to Alabama. So it doesn’t even get cold down there, so they won’t even experience a white Christmas there. So I don’t know if we’re actually gonna go back to the United States for Christmas. It depends. I don’t know. That’s a year away. But if not, then we’re definitely gonna go someplace in the Sierra Nevada region where they can experience a white Christmas.
Carlie: And finally, what is on the agenda for Christmas in your household?
Jesse: It’s funny you say that because I was just thinking about that yesterday, talking about whether I would have them over and we’d do it here or take them to a place out in the mountains or a place outside of the city and do it. There would be a little more logistic problems. I’d have to take the stuff there and then if we stay in a house or something, find a place to hide them and then do all that. But long story short, I don’t know what I’m doing yet.
Carlie: There’s nothing like a last-minute plan.
Jesse: I know, right? I know. So that’s the best I have. I don’t know what we’re doing yet.
Carlie: Jesse, thank you so much for coming on the Expat Focus podcast to talk festive traditions. It has been a very fun chat.
Jesse: It has been. Thank you for inviting me. This was awesome.
Carlie: And Merry Christmas
Jesse: And Merry Christmas and happy holidays with whatever tradition you celebrate.
Carlie: Happy holidays, everyone. That’s it for this episode. We’ll be back in the new year with more interviews with expats from all over the world. If you like what we do, please subscribe or follow us however you like to listen to the show. And we love hearing from you. You can drop us a message on social media anytime. We are Expat Focus. I’ll catch you next time.