Just as we are getting into the festive season here in Norway, people in China also have a widely celebrated tradition around this time of the year. On exactly today (22nd December), the Winter Solstice, or 冬至(dōng zhì) is celebrated in millions of Chinese homes. This tradition could be traced back to over four thousand years ago, and is based on one beautiful concept – that after this night, the days will become longer again. This is especially important for agricultural societies because it signifies the end of cold Winter is in sight.
A Day of Abundance
As it is the time for putting harvest into storage, Dongzhi is also a celebration of abundance. Traditions varies in different regions, but they are all centered on food. In the North, people make and share ear-shaped dumplings to commemorate the doctor from the Han Dynasty who once healed a whole village of frost-bite ears. In the South, you can find white balls of tangyuan bobbling in spicy sweet soup in every kitchen, as a symbol of family union. In Canton area especially, the celebration can be as large as that in the Chinese New Year.
Part of a larger timetable
The celebration of Winter Solstice is indeed not unique. You may already know that in old Norwegian tradition, the pagan celebration of “Yule” was precisely the Winter Solstice, until it is believed to be Christianized and become Jul, or Christmas. However, what makes this day special in China is that it is part of an annual timetable called 节气 (jiéqì), or “Solar Terms” which is now listed as a UNESCO Intangible World Heritage, equally protected as the process of making the Oselvar boat from Norway, or Reggae music from Jamaica.
In Harmony with Nature
The Solar Terms are 24 days distributed evenly throughout the year that reflect the seasonal change every 15 degree change in the Earth’s position to the Sun. Each Solar Term represent the natural phenomenon that time of the year, such as Insect Waken惊蛰 (jīngzhé, 5th or 6th of March), which means hibernated animals start to wake up. It is also a guide for agricultural activities, such as Corn on ear芒种(mángzhòng, 6th or 7th of June), the time when grains are growing strong and ready to be replanted. Passed on through generations in the form of poems and songs, the Solar Terms has been used for farming communities to understand the timeframe of a year, but even nowadays the traditions and rituals around them are very much alive across different ethnic groups. Most importantly, the 24 solar terms carry with them the millennia-old wisdom that human activities would benefit from being in harmony with nature – an ancient Chinese whisper that is as relevant today as ever. On this note, Jiaoxie wish everyone a peaceful, beautiful Winter Solstice, and a very happy Christmas!
For more information:
On the tradition of celebrating Winter Solstice in China: https://www.chinahighlights.com/festivals/winter-solstice.htm
On the 24 Solar Terms and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/the-twenty-four-solar-terms-knowledge-in-china-of-time-and-practices-developed-through-observation-of-the-suns-annual-motion-00647https://www.hko.gov.hk/gts/time/24solarterms.htm