Buying gifts in any part of the world is always hard. Luckily, you don’t have to think too much when you’re in Korea. Korean culture will tell you what presents to buy for Korean weddings, house warmings, birthdays, and traditional Korean holidays. These traditional Korean gifts will impress your friends and family, and also show that you have a good knowledge of Korean culture.
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Just like most countries in Asia, when you go to a wedding in Korea, cash is the expected gift. Many people know this, but figuring out the exact amount to give can be a bit trickier. Traditionally, people do not give cash in even numbers at weddings. Cash gifts for Korean newly weds typically come in odd numbers (30,000, 50,000, 70,000 won) as odd numbers represent good luck. Though, the whole odd/even thing doesn’t matter so much once you reach a nice round number of 100,000 won.
How much should you give? Well, that really depends. The amount of money you give should be representative of your friendship or relationship. If it’s someone you met only a few times or you’re a poor student, 30,000 won is about the minimum. Closer friends usually give between 100,000 to 300,000 won.
Tip 1: Common protocol is to stuff the cash in an envelope and write your name on top. There will either be a collection box, or someone to collect these envelopes and take note of your name. Don’t be surprised if someone asks how much is inside.
Tip 2: If you’re close enough, ask if they’d like something other than cash. Contemporary Koreans don’t put too much stock into these numbers and they also tend to love espresso machines.
If all your pals have gotten married, you’ll soon be invited to a Korean house warming party. Housewarmings in Korea, called jibdeuli (집들이), are fun gatherings with friends, family, food and of course, gifts. The traditional gifts to bring to housewarmings in Korea are rolls of toilet paper and laundry detergent. When Korea was a poorer country, toilet paper and detergent were pricy items that not every household could afford. In addition to that, the bubbles produced by the detergent and the length of the sheets of toilet paper represented prosperity. If your friends are slightly more modern, don’t discount a nice bottle of wine.
Tip: So your friends don’t end up with a 7 year supply of toilet paper, you can also bring facial tissues or paper towel. A common variation for laundry detergent is dishwasher soap.
You’ve been to your friend’s wedding and her housewarming, now it’s her baby’s first birthday party, called doljanchi (돌잔치). During harder times, survivng the first year was something worth celebrating, and the tradition continues today. Although these days, parents won’t mind if you bring clothes or toys for their child, the traditional gifts for a baby’s first birthday party in Korea are tiny gold rings for the baby’s fingers. If you aren’t sure exactly what rings to buy, cash is always appreciated.
These traditional Korean holidays are mostly family exclusive, but if you’re visiting relatives in Korea or you’re lucky enough to be invited to one of these traditional Korean holidays, you don’t want to arrive empty handed. During the holiday season, you can walk into any supermarket, big or small, and find gift sets already packaged and ready to go. There you’ll find lots of spam, tuna and shampoos. While these might seem weird to you, they are totally expected and accepted gifts for Koreans.
Seollal (설날) is the lunar new year and everyone wants to start the new year with a bit of luck. After the ancestral rites, many of people drink alcohol to bring in the good luck (called 음복술/eumboksul). Although it’s not necessarily a traditional gift, your Korean hosts would appreciate some traditional Korean alcohol (go for anything but soju or makkeolli). And these days, many Koreans would appreciate a nice bottle of whiskey too!
Chuseok (추석) is the celebration of the harvest, so the traditional Korean gift to give is good food. Fruit is a common gift, but go for the nice boxed sets of Korean pears or apples and not the budget bin at your local E-Mart. If you want to get them beef, Korean hanu (한우) beef is a common gift.
축의금 (chukuigeum) – congratulatory money (cash gifts, typically for weddings).
금반지 (geumbanji) – gold ring (금/geum = gold) (반지/banji = ring)