Winter Solstice, or ‘Dongzhi’ (literally translated as winter's coming), is one of the most important occasions on the Chinese calendar. The first of the twenty-four seasonal points in the lunar new year, it generally falls on either December 21 or 22 in the western calendar.
This year, Winter Solstice will occur on Wednesday 21 December 2016. A very loose interpretation would be to view this day as a combined Thanksgiving and (secular) Christmas.
2,500 years ago (circa 770-476 BC)., the Chinese discovered the twenty-four seasonal points and used them to forecast the weather and climate. Farmers usually referred to these points in the same way that their western counterparts looked to their Almanac to determine the best sowing times, hottest day of the year or estimated snowfall.
The day of the Winter Solstice is when the Northern hemisphere experiences the shortest daytime and weakest sunshine of the year. This corresponds to the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, which represents balance and harmony in life. The Yin qualities of darkness and cold are at their most powerful on the shortest day of the year, and yet also signify the turning point towards the light and warmth of Yang. It is for this reason that the Winter Solstice Festival is a time of optimism and celebration.
The Winter Solstice first appeared as a festival during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and thrived in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). This winter festival was a time when all business and trade would come to a halt as everyone, from high officials to border crossing guards would stop work and get together with family and friends to celebrate with gifts of festival foods and treats.
Coinciding with the end of the growing season, Winter Solstice was also a time of thanksgiving and sacrifice. All Chinese at this time would pay homage to their ancestors with sacrificial and symbolic foods laid at the family altar. The Emperor would leave his palace and travel to the Temple of Heaven to pay respect to the tablet representing Heaven. This was no small feat and involved a parade of imperial princes, high officials and state functionaries as well as hundreds of performers, musicians and servants bearing the imperial ancestral tablets and sacrificial objects, with much ritual posturing and music along the route.
Today, people mark the occasion in northern China by eating Chinese dumplings, saying that doing so will keep them from feeling the frost during the upcoming winter months. The southern part of the country puts on a much bigger celebration, one that is second only to Chinese New Year for many families, and involves the preparation of an entire feast. This is in part because the festival coincided with a time to lay by food for the upcoming winter as farming and fishing became less bountiful. This included a dish of red-beans and glutinous rice to symbolize driving away evil spirits and bad luck. Another very popular dish involved consumption of the tangyuan, a kind of dumpling made of glutinous rice flour and stuffed with meat or sweetened beans or nuts, which marked the reunion of the family.
Traditionally dinners were enjoyed at home but many modern families tend to celebrate at a restaurant or club. We therefore suggest you book early if you intend to dine out on this evening.
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