When I was a little boy right after the 1950-53 Korean War, I received a Christmas present from Santa Claus. On that Christmas Eve, I woke up in the middle of the night and found the gift next to my pillow. I was overjoyed because it was the first Christmas present I had ever received.
The present turned out to be six pencils made in the U.S.A., arrayed in an orderly fashion in a gorgeous pencil box. At that time, Korea suffered postwar poverty and quality pencils were rare and expensive. Thus, there could not have been a better present for an elementary school boy like me. Besides, the pencils looked so exotic and colorful. That night, I was the wealthiest, happiest boy on Earth.
On the cover of the pencil box was a picture of a New England church covered with snow. To my eyes, which were accustomed to the barren landscape of postwar Korean society, ridden with the debris of war, it looked so peaceful and serene. Looking at this beautiful picture, I was enthralled by the exotic atmosphere of Christmas in a foreign land. Ever since, I have dreamed of a white Christmas whenever the delightful season approaches.
Because I had that image fixed so firmly in my mind, I have always thought that spending the Christmas season in a warm or tropical country would be dreary and weird. What fun would be there if there were no snow on Christmas or if it was warm like a summer day? Do Christmas carolers not sing, “Dashing through the snow/In a one-horse open sleigh”? Indeed, I have always been in a cold place during the Christmas season all through my life.
Last winter, I was in Malaga, Spain as a visiting professor at the University of Malaga. When Christmas was just around the corner, naturally I did not expect much, because there would be neither snow nor cold weather in southern Spain. Soon, however, I realized I was wrong. To my surprise, the whole city of Malaga strongly evoked the Christmas atmosphere, with huge, glittering Christmas trees decorated with colorful lightbulbs and fabulous Christmas ornaments. Neon signs announcing “Feliz Navidad!” were everywhere, even in small alleys. In the windows of stores I could see a ceramic sculpture of baby Jesus in a manger and the three wise men from the East. The gigantic cathedrals, too, displayed decorations for Christmas. The Christmas season in Spain was beautiful and fabulous despite the warm weather. To my surprise, it turned out to be the best Christmas I ever had.
In Malaga, I realized Christmas had nothing to do with snow or cold weather. I also realized that it was merely my childhood fantasy to think only a white Christmas was a real Christmas. As children we tend to believe something as absolute truth. In fact, however, it may be nothing but our youthful expectations -- which may not be true.
Last spring, I left Spain for the US. Now I am living in New England where the churches and villages are all white, covered with snow in the Christmas season. Here in New England, I see the whole town looks like a beautiful Christmas card scene. My childhood dream has come true and my fantasy has become reality at last. Nevertheless, I now know that Christmas in Spain can be equally beautiful and fantastic as well.
The legendary singer Pat Boone sang a famous Christmas carol, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know.”
When we were young, we had fantasies and dreams. When we grow up, however, we have to get out of our adolescent romantic naivete and face reality as an adult. We should know that we could not always have a white Christmas unless we live in a snowy place such as New England. We should know that things might be different from “the ones we used to know.”
Likewise, we need to get out of the fantasy we used to believe in when we were young and impetuous. We should realize that what we once believed as absolute truth might be merely our assumptions and presumptions. For example, our politicians who once believed in Marxism when they were fighting against right-wing military dictatorships should realize that the age of Marxism is over now. Fantasizing about the ideology of Marxism in the 21st century is like dreaming of a white Christmas in Spain, which is absurd and foolish.
White Christmas is not the only Christmas that is beautiful and perfect. The Spanish Christmas has its own beauty and merits even if there is no white Christmas. In fact, Christmas has nothing to do with snow or cold weather. The important thing is our happiness during the Christmas season and the Christmas spirit of caring about each other.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.