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Dongzhi Festival - Winter Solstice Festivals (Part 1)

Every culture that has ever lifted a plow has paid close attention to the changing seasons. Calendars helped us keep track of the passing seasons. Soon we realized that the days grew shorter and longer in a regular dance. This led to myths forming around what caused this procession.

Festivals help us make sense of time. They add flavor to our lives. Winter solstice festivals are particularly important in the Northern Hemisphere due to the punishing cold of the winters there.

Dongzhi (冬至) - South East Asian Winter Solstice

As the legend goes, a wise man discovered the winter solstice over 2500 years ago. His name was Zhougfong, and he was Chinese. The discovery soon spread throughout South East Asia.

During the Han Dynasty, 206 BCE - 220 CE, the winter solstice was made an official national celebration. Thus, Dongzhi was born, and it soon spread throughout the continent and the nearby islands.

Dongzhi isn't celebrated on the same day every year. The date varies between 21-23 December. In ancient times, the emperor would make sacrifices on Dongzhi, and government officials would take the day off to observe traditional worship.

Not every culture celebrates the day the same. The Chinese version of the festival has several traditions associated with it.

Dongzhi Traditions

During Dongzhi it is traditional to go to a temple to worship the heavens. This is done to ensure a bountiful harvest and good health. The proverb, 乾冬至,濕過年, means "Dry winter solstice, wet new year". Rain comes from the heavens, so that's something to pray for as well.

After honoring the heavens, people will worship their ancestors. They do this by placing offerings of incense and food on a table in front of the shrine in their homes. Some people take the offerings to their ancestors' tombs and spend some time cleaning up the tomb. Dumplings, steamed chicken, or pork are usually offered to the ancestors.

Chinese rice wine Kent Wang - Flickr
Let's get festive

Fighting the cold is an integral part of many winter solstice festivals around the world. Dongzhi is no different. Making, and drinking, rice wine is an important tradition to ward off the cold and bring good cheer.

In Northern China, it is believed that spring will come after nine sets of nine days from the winter solstice. Nine is an important number that symbolizes eternity. In honor of this belief, people recite the "Nines of Winter".

During the first and second nine days, it's too cold to put your hands in the air;
During the third and fourth nine days, you can walk on ice;
During the fifth and sixth nine days, willows on the banks start to sprout;
During the seventh nine days ice will dissolve;
During the eighth nine days, wild geese fly back north;
During the last nine days, farmers' oxen start to work in the fields.

Traditional Dongzhi Food

People love food. Festivals usually have meals associated with them. Dongzhi is no different.

Southern Chinese people will roast and preserve meat during Dongzhi to be enjoyed during the New Year festival.

Tangyuan is also enjoyed during Dongzhi by the southern Chinese as well as further afield, like Taiwan. These goopy rice balls are filled with black sesame paste and come served in a syrup. Taiwanese tradition holds that eating Tangyuan during Dongzhi marks the point when you become one year older.




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