The Dongzhi Festival or Winter Solstice Festival is a festival celebrated in China and East Asia during the winter months. 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 of 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 Dongzhi Festival is traditionally 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.
During these get-togethers, families in southern China often make and eat tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice, occasionally brightly coloured, cooked in a sweet or savoury broth. Tangyuan symbolise 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.
In northern China, people typically indulge in dumplings, either plain or stuffed with hearty meats. The reason for this is rooted in Chinese folklore: it is said that Zhang Zhongjing, the eminent Han Dynasty physician, noticed poor farmers suffering from chilblains or frostbite in their ears on one cold winter day. On seeing this, he ordered his apprentices make dumplings with lamb and other warming (or yang) ingredients before distributing them to the poor to keep them warm. The word for dumpling is jiozi 饺子 which sounds like jiao ‘er 娇耳 meaning ‘tender ears’. This tradition has continued and is adhered to even now. Similarly, food prepared according to traditional recipes with the focus on nourishing the body is commonly eaten during the festival.
Dongzhi is the last festival of the year, occurring 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. 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.