Tips on how to find decor, festive food and tacky sweaters in Seoul
As the leaves fell from the trees and the holiday lights came out at department stores, the transition from autumn to winter became more apparent in early December, but it still didn’t feel like the holiday season we’re used to having in the States.
The month of November actually flew by for us as we hosted/entertained three different friends/family members who all happened to be in town on business in Seoul. After the familiar faces left, we had Thanksgiving dinner with new friends and co-workers. And then the homesickness for the holidays in the States started to sink in a bit.
As we approached the holidays, Michal and I decided to get into the spirit with introducing some traditions to our new expat community and Korean friends by holding a Tacky Sweater Party and White Elephant Gift Exchange. Through our experiences, I’ve developed a comprehensive guide of where to find some affordable deals in Seoul for holiday necessities.
Decorate on a dime:
Daiso – The Japan-based store has several locations throughout Seoul. It’s a doppelganger for stores like Dollar Tree or Big Lots in the U.S. with bargain basics on Christmas decorations. Keep in mind that because everything is cheap, the bulbs are plastic instead of glass, lights come only in one color, and some big-ticket items like tree toppers and tree skirts were missing. We kept it simple at Daiso and went with a red, gold and silver motif for our tree.
Express Bus Terminal Market – Located near Exit 8 of the subway station on the third floor of the terminal: It was a bit of a sensory overload with all the flashing lights and decor displays, reminding me a little of Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, Mich. – “The World’s Largest Christmas Store.” But I was so glad I got the tip from a fellow expat friend to visit this indoor market as it offered more variety and better quality than Daiso. I found everything from Christmas tree decor and wrapping paper to poinsettias and candles. Try your hand at negotiating prices – I got a few free or “service” items for buying a lot from certain vendors. I created the table settings at our party using tea candles, burlap and ribbons from a sale bin.
Pop-up/seasonal Christmas markets –
A lot of the expat organizations in Seoul have holiday-related markets that are similar to what they would hold in their native countries.
- Seoul International Women’s Association (SIWA) Fall Bazaar – This is a well-established international bazaar with proceeds going toward local charities. Typically occurring in mid-November, it doesn’t focus on the holidays as it does more with food and culture, but I found our Christmas stockings and a few other tree decorations here.
- British Association of Seoul (BASS) Christmas Fair – I did not visit this market but would like to try it next year as Michal and I traveled in London and Cambridge during the holiday season last year, which was quite magical and movie-like. I read that besides decor vendors, the fair featured classic holiday British fare like minced meat pies and mulled wine.
- French Christmas Market: Marche de Noel – I’m going to try to check out this one as it’s coming up this weekend. The original website advertisement for it is in French, so I’ve linked the English version of the poster from the Korea 4 Expats website. It will also feature some classic holiday French fare like pate and Buche de Noel.
Facebook groups/Craigslist –
I have bought many second-hand household items as we have gotten settled into our apartment in Seoul. Craigslist is as popular here as it is in the U.S., but I prefer going on specific Facebook group forums as I’ve found it to be more user-friendly. I found our (fake) Christmas tree through the Yongsan Buy and Sell group from someone on the nearby military base. He had a car and was even willing to drop it off directly at my apartment. Another Facebook group I use is Itaewon Garage Sale. These two are especially plentiful with expats.
Wrapping paper –
I had a hard time finding affordable wrapping paper in the type of format I have seen back home. For example, the vendors at the Express Bus Terminal sold paper and tissue a few pieces at a time rather than in a large roll. I discovered that the Alpha office supply/stationary chain store in Korea offers an abundance of wrapping paper including holiday designs. I bought a thick roll of the metallic quality for less than 10,000 won.
Find Tacky Sweaters and Christmas Jammies with Ajumma Style:
- H&M and Forever 21 – Just like in the States, these stores offered several options for tacky holiday-themed sweaters. Michal and I found ours for this year at H&M. There are several locations through Seoul, but the post popular ones with a greater variety are in the fashion district of Myeong-dong. Beware: Because the stores are familiar to expats and prices are cheap, other party-goers will probably buy the same sweaters.
- Underground shopping at subway stations – A few friends got creative and resourceful by finding sweaters and pajamas with holiday colors and flashy touches like sequins/glitter in the shops of subway stations. Gangnam has an extensive underground shopping network.
Have your fill of festive food and drinks:
- Third party delivery sites for Cost Co. – Since moving to Seoul, I’ve shopped at three different Cost Co. locations in Seoul and used all possible modes of transportation – catching a ride from a friend with a car, taking a cab, and simply ordering online. I’ve preferred ordering from a third party delivery site like EZ Korea as I like to avoid crowds and Cost Co. stores in Seoul are actually much more chaotic and busy than what I’ve seen in suburban America.
The biggest issue with ordering online (besides overcharging on certain items) is that they don’t offer everything the store does – like alcohol. This called for creative substitutions like Michal replacing vodka in jello shots with the easily accessible/very afforable soju.
- Itaewon expat stores like Foreign Food Mart, National Food Mart and High Street Market – These are especially helpful to buy smaller amounts of foreign ingredients like sparkling cider, cinnamon sticks, hot cocoa, ricotta cheese and fresh basil leaves.
- iHerb – I’ve ordered often from this website since moving to Seoul as it is a health food store that offers products like vitamins/supplements, spices and dry goods like quinoa and nuts. Shipping cost is extremely minimal and they offer discounts the more you purchase. For the holidays, I had bought items like dark chocolate and dried cranberries from iHerb.
Our holiday party ultimately turned into a bit of a fun cultural exchange with our friends as we explained all the traditions – a majority have never played the gift exchange game nor owned a tacky sweater. The gathering created some sense of familiarity during a time of homesickness and really set the tone for our Advent Season. Next up for us: Our Christmas vacation in Vietnam!
If you’re an expat in Seoul, what are your suggestions for getting in the holiday spirit?