As early as 2,500 years ago, about the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), China had determined the point of Winter Solstice by observing movements of the sun with a sundial. It is the earliest of the 24 seasonal division points. The time will be each December 21 or 22 according to the Gregorian calendar.
The Northern hemisphere on this day experiences the shortest daytime and longest nighttime. After the Winter Solstice, days will become longer and longer. As ancient Chinese thought, the yang, or muscular, positive things will become stronger and stronger after this day, so it should be celebrated.
The Winter Solstice became a festival during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD) and thrived in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). Dongzhi is literally translated to mean ‘the extreme of winter’, and the festival is designed to celebrate the return of longer daylight hours and ultimately an increase in positive energy. The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony, and this is symbolized by the I Ching hexagram fù 復 which means ‘returning’ (of the longer days, of the light, of warmth). It usually occurs between the 21st and 23rd December; in 2014, the festival lands on Sunday 21st December or Monday 22nd December, depending on location.
The Han people regarded Winter Solstice as a “Winter Festival”, so officials would organize celebrating activities. On this day, both officials and common people would have a rest. The army was stationed in, frontier fortresses closed and business and traveling stopped. In the Tang and Song dynasties, the Winter Solstice was a day to offer sacrifices to Heaven and ancestors. Emperors would go to suburbs to worship the Heaven; while common people offered sacrifices to their deceased parents or other relatives. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) even had the record that “Winter Solstice is as formal as the Spring Festival”, showing the great importance attached to this day.
Traditionally, the Dongzhi Festival is also a time for the family to get together, much as Westerners do on Christmas day. Although the festival isn’t an official holiday in China, historically farmers and fishermen would take time off from work and reunite with their families with a lavish meal. One activity that occurs during these get-togethers (especially in the southern parts of China and in Chinese communities overseas) is the making and eating of tangyuan (湯圓) or balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize reunion or wholeness and unity, and are also eaten during Yuanxiao or the Lantern Festival and served as a dessert on a Chinese wedding day.. Tangyuan are made of glutinous rice flour and sometimes brightly colored. Each family member receives at least one large tangyuan in addition to several small ones. The flour balls may be plain or stuffed. They are cooked in a sweet soup or savory broth with both the ball and the soup/broth served in one bowl. It is also often served with a mildly alcoholic unfiltered rice wine containing whole grains of glutinous rice (and often also Sweet Osmanthus flowers), called jiuniang.
In northern China, people typically eat dumplings on Dongzhi; either plain or stuffed with hearty meats. The reason for this is rooted in Chinese folkfore; it is said to have originated from Zhang Zhongjing, the eminent Han Dyansty physician in the Han Dynasty. On one cold winter day, he saw the poor suffering from chilblains or frostbites on their ears. Feeling sympathetic, he ordered his apprentices to make dumplings with lamb and other ingredients, and distribute them among the poor to keep them warm, to keep their ears from getting chilblains. Since the dumplings were shaped like ears, Zhang named the dish “qùhán jiāoěr tāng” (祛寒嬌耳湯) or dumpling soup that expels the cold. The word for dumpling is jiozi 饺子 which sounds like jiao ‘er 娇耳 meaning ‘tender ears’. This tradition has continued to adhered to even now. Similarly, the food prepared according to traditional recipes with the focus on nourishing the body is commonly eaten during the Dongzhi Festival.
Old traditions also require people with the same surname or from the same clan to gather at their ancestral temples to worship on this day. There is always a grand reunion dinner following the sacrificial ceremony.
Dongzhi is the last festival of the year, occuring only six weeks before the Chinese New Year. However, some people believe that this festival marks a turning point, and that everybody becomes one year older on this day. The festive food is also a reminder that celebrators are now a year older and should behave better in the coming year. Even today, many Chinese around the world, especially the elderly, still insist that one is “a year older” right after the Dongzhi celebration instead of waiting for the lunar new year.
Despite the fact that the festival is no longer as significant as it was 2,000 years ago, Dongzhi is still a great example of ancient Chinese traditions that are still acknowledged today.
To Taiwanese people, the festival in winter also plays a very important role. It is also a tradition for Taiwanese to eat tangyuan on this day. They also use the festive food as an offering dish to worship the ancestors.
In an interesting twist, in accordance with ancient Taiwanese history, many people take some of the tangyuan that have been used as offerings and stick them on the back of the door or on windows and tables and chairs. These “empowered” tangyuan supposedly serve as protective talismans to keep evil spirits from coming close to children.
In addition to following some of the customs practiced in China, the people of Taiwan have their own unique custom of offering nine-layer cakes as a ceremonial sacrifice to worship their ancestors. These cakes are made using glutinous rice flour in the shape of a chicken, duck, tortoise, pig, cow, or sheep, and then steamed in different layers of a pot. These animals all signify auspiciousness in Chinese tradition.
Another interesting custom in Taiwan is that many people take invigorating tonic foods during this particular winter festival. To the Taiwanese, winter is a time when most physical activities should be limited and you should eat well to nourish your body. This practice follows the habits shown by many animals which follow the law of nature and hibernate throughout winter months to rejuvenate and to preserve life. In order to fight cold temperatures, it is necessary to eat more fatty and meaty foods during winter when your body can better absorb the rich and nutritional foods at this time due to a slower metabolic rate.
Since Dongzhi is the “Extreme of Winter”, Taiwanese regard it as the best time of the year to take tonic foods. Some of the most widely popular winter tonic foods enjoyed by Taiwanese to fight cold and strengthen the body’s resistance are mutton hot pot and ginger duck hot pot. Other foods like chicken, pork, and abalone are also common materials used in making tonic foods with nurturing herbs such as ginseng, deer horn, and the fungus cordyceps.
Four Other Traditional Foods for Winter Solstice
1. Babao Porridge
Babao porridge is also called eight-treasure porridge. It contains glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds, red beans and some other ingredients, such as dried dates, chestnut meat, walnut meat, almond, peanut, etc. Actually eight ingredients are used, cooked with sugar to make the porridge tasty.
2. Chinese Radish
According to TCM, Chinese radish is neutral in character, slightly pungent and sweet in flavor. It can promote a better appetite and digestion, eliminate toxin, resolve phlegm, clear heat, and regulate Qi movement. There is an old Chinese saying, “eating Chinese radish in winter and ginger in summer can ensure health all the year round”.
Wonton is a type of dumpling commonly found in a number of Chinese cuisines. The most common filling is ground pork with a small amount of flour added as a binder. The mixture is seasoned with salt, spices, and often garlic or finely chopped green onion.
TCM believes mutton is sweet in flavor and warm in character, which can nourish kidneys and blood. The calories in mutton is higher than beef, the iron content of mutton is six times more than that of pork.
Written by HY Heng