Why "Home Alone" and "Harry Potter" films are so popular at Christmas time in Korea

Christmas is widely viewed as a couple’s holiday in Korea — so single people find holiday cheer in a few particular movies

During my stint as an English teacher at an all-girls’ high school in Korea, holidays provided easy opportunities to talk about differences in American and Korean culture. Since winter vacation is the longest break in the Korean school calendar, I usually traveled back to the States to spend Christmas with my family. My students, however, had other plans.

“Do you have any special plans for Christmas?” I asked my students.

Many of them would answer with a heavy sigh and a rueful smile:

“I’ll just be at home with Kevin.”

Others would shake their heads and say:

“I’m going to spend Christmas with Harry.”

I was puzzled to get the same answers from many different students — until I figured out that the former is a reference to the 1990 American film Home Alone, while the latter refers to the Harry Potter series.

South Korea is one of the only countries in East Asia to recognize Christmas as a national holiday, and about 30% of its population is Christian. Even so, Christmas is largely viewed as a holiday for couples. Restaurants take reservations for special Christmas dinner dates, social media platforms are full of suggestions for romantic “date courses” in locations with beautiful scenery and maximum amounts of Christmas lights, and Christmas-themed candy and chocolate abound in every store. Since most of my students — high school students at an all-girls school who spent most of their waking hours studying — did not have significant others, many of them spent Christmas Day lounging at home, binge-watching movies like Home Alone and Harry Potter.

A screenshot of a Korean Facebook post advertising a Harry Potter marathon on a cable movie channel. The lower caption reads, “How about spending this Christmas with Harry Potter instead of Kevin?”

The idea of a Harry Potter movie marathon makes perfect sense. It’s not uncommon for cable networks to broadcast the films in sequence and on repeat, particularly around the holidays. My students are also in the target age group for the Harry Potter franchise. But I’ve always been surprised by the number of students who crack the joke about Kevin. My students were not even alive when Home Alone was first released in America, and they wouldn’t be alive — let alone old enough to appreciate a lot of the film’s humor — for several more years.

I recently asked my Korean teacher, a middle-aged woman, if she had heard of these jokes about Kevin and Harry. She thought they were hilarious, but she had never heard them before. “You must have had some really funny students,” she said. When I explained that it was many of my students delivering these punchlines, not just a handful, she shrugged. “Must be the generation gap — young people spread those kinds of jokes on social media,” she said. “But Home Alone is always on TV around the holidays. There are probably very few Koreans who haven’t seen that movie.”

I asked another Korean friend about why Christmas had become a couple’s holiday in Korea. “I think that many Koreans got a romantic idea of Christmas from Western countries,” she said. “You know, all the colorful lights, playing in the snow, exchanging gifts — so naturally, it became a holiday for couples.”

A scene from the Korean drama “Pinocchio,” capitalizing on some romantic Christmas lighting. Source: Tumblr

My Korean teacher had a more practical suggestion to offer: “For holidays like Chuseok and Seollal (Lunar New Year), we get multiple days off, so that’s when Koreans spend time with their families,” she said. “Christmas is just one day, so even though it’s a national holiday, it really isn’t much time off.”

This seems like a pretty sound theory. On the traditional holidays of Chuseok and Seollal, there are usually 2-3 days off from work, plus a weekend. As such, these holidays always bring about massive traffic jams at the beginning and end of the break as people travel to and from their hometowns, most of them coming from Seoul and heading to the outlying regions. Although it usually takes no more than 4-5 hours to get from one end of the country to the other in any direction, holiday traffic can tack on several hours to the journey. With only one day off for Christmas, perhaps it’s no wonder that the holiday fell in line with Korea’s string of commercialized couple holidays such as Peppero Day, Valentine’s Day, and White Day.

So if you’re single this holiday season and feeling bummed that you don’t have a special someone to meet under the mistletoe, just remember — you can always spend Christmas at home with Kevin and Harry.