Happy Dongzhi Festival!
We’ve updated this post to bring you more interesting (and useful!) stuff about Dongzhi 冬至—the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival.
During the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, people in China or of ethnic Chinese heritage everywhere celebrate the Dongzhi Festival or 冬至 Dōngzhì, which literally means “Winter’s Extreme”.
The winter or hibernal solstice is when one of the Earth’s poles is tilted furthest from the sun, and that day has the shortest period of daylight of the year, and the longest night. Depending on where you are, it could mark either the middle of winter or just its beginning. Either way: it’s going to get really cold!
I grew up in Singapore, where the Dongzhi Festival was never a big thing because it’s never winter in tropical Singapore!
It was only when we lived in Flushing Queens, New York, where there’s a big Chinese population, that I began to understand the Dongzhi Festival, because you know, you can’t help but feel it in the air…
How Dongzhi is Celebrated
As they do with major astrological events, many cultures celebrate the winter solstice—not just the Chinese, but also the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and other East Asians, as well as Europeans, Native Americans and Iranians.
Here’s how Dongzhi is traditionally celebrated amongst Chinese communities:
Ancestor worship is a part of many Chinese festivals, including Dongzhi. Families tidy up the tombs of their ancestors and also burn incense and make offerings of food.
Reuniting with Family
Similar to Chinese New Year, families reunite for a celebratory meal.
For Southern Chinese, these meals traditionally include 汤圆 tāngyuán (glutinous rice balls), as it sounds like 团圆 tuányuán, which means ‘reunion’.
Northern Chinese usually eat dumplings like 饺子 jiǎozi (steamed or boiled, and served with sauces for dipping) or 馄饨 húntún (thinner-skinned dumplings which are often served in soup).
As it’s winter, food that warms the body, such as ginger and lamb, are usually served.
Praying at the Temple
At Dongzhi, many Chinese people visit temples to pray for a good harvest and good health in the year ahead.
Counting the Nines of Winter 数九 (shǔ jiǔ)
Traditionally, Chinese people believed that Spring will arrive after nine consecutive periods of 9 days, beginning with Dongzhi.
The Nines of Winter is a folk song charting what happens during each of the nine periods.
The Nines of Winter song goes like this:
(Yījiǔ’èrjiǔ bù chūshǒu)
During the 1st and 2nd 9-day periods, you can’t show your hands (because it’s too cold)
(sānjiǔsìjiǔ bīng shàng zǒu)
During the 3rd and 4th 9-day periods, you can walk on ice
(wǔjiǔliùjiǔ kàn yángliǔ)
During the 5th and 6th 9-day period, you can see the willows sprouting
(qījiǔ hé kāi)
During the 7th 9-day period, the rivers thaw
During the 8th 9-day period, the geese arrive
(jiǔjiǔ jiā yījiǔ, gēng niú biàndì zǒu.)
During the last nine days, the oxen start to till the fields
Here’s a cute video sharing the background behind the Nines of Winter:
FOOD + FREEZING WEATHER
Not surprisingly, the Dongzhi Festival has a lot to do with food!
汤圆 Tāngyuán Glutinous Rice Balls
The Southern Chinese, such as the Cantonese and Taiwanese, like to get together to make and eat colourful glutinous rice balls called 汤圆 Tāngyuán.
They are also sometimes called 冬至团 dōngzhìtuán (which literally translates as “winter solstice reunion”) or 冬至丸 dōngzhì wán (winter solstice balls). Some don’t even come in soup; they are steamed and rolled in nuts or sesame powder like the 擂圆 léi yuán in Linhai, Taizhou, Zhejiang.
Tangyuan are often filled with peanut or sesame paste and served in a sweet soup (usually made with ginger or brown sugar, and sometimes red bean) or a savoury broth. Most supermarkets nowadays sell frozen pre-made tangyuan all-year round, so go try some!
Yen Yen remembers really enjoying making tangyuan with the family because it’s like playing with play dough and it was just so loud and messy and full of flour! Also because the glutinous rice balls are so colorful!
ACTIVITY: Have a Ball and Throw a Tangyuan Party!
You can follow this simple recipe or the video below:
Sing a Song of 汤圆 Tāngyuán
As you make your tangyuan, why not try singing this traditional Taiwanese Minnan/Hokkien song?
We’ve provided the Mandarin pinyin and English translation for your reference:
冬节圆 挲圆圆 Dōng jié yuán, sā yuán yuán
In the fullness of the Winter festival, we mould the tangyuan
圆圆趁大钱 yuán yuán chèn dàqián
The tangyuan can make us rich
冬节圆 食甜甜 dōng jié yuán, shí tián tián
In the fullness of the Winter festival, we eat sweet things
甜甜有福气 tián tián yǒu fúqi
Sweetness carries luck
冬节圆圆 阁甜甜 dōng jié yuán yuán gé tián tián
Each tangyuan is sweet
平安富贵感谢天 píng’ān fùguì gǎnxiè tiān
We thank heaven for peace and good fortune
饺子 Jiǎozi Dumplings
Dumplings like 饺子 jiǎozi and 馄饨 húntún (wontons) are a big feature in Northern China around Dongzhi.
There’s an amusing story that dumplings look like ears, and eating dumplings in the winter will prevent you from getting cold and frost-bitten ears! (There are some accounts which suggest that 饺子 jiǎozi used to be known as 饺耳 jiǎo ěr—耳 ěr means “ear”.) You can feed me dumplings any time of the “ear”! 😁😋
There are soooo many different kinds of dumplings—different fillings, different wrappers, different cooking styles. That’s why we at Dim Sum Warriors value diversity so much!
ACTIVITY: Have a DIY Dumpling Party!
Why not try making your own dumplings? This post and video from Red House Spice is very useful.
米糕 mǐ gāo Rice Cakes
In Hangzhou, it’s said that on Dongzhi, all 3 meals involve some kind of sticky rice cake, like 桂花白糖年糕 (guìhuā báitáng niángāo) sweet-scented osmanthus rice cakes、肉丝炒年糕 (ròu sī chǎo niángāo) fried rice cakes with shredded pork、筍絲湯年糕 (ròu sī chǎo niángāo) rice cakes in bamboo shoot soup, etc.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, besides tangyuan, another very traditional food is 九层糕 jiǔ céng gāo or 9-layer cakes made from glutinous rice flour. They are often colorful and also moulded into the shapes of animals.
Also popular are “tonic” foods to build one’s resistance to the cold, such as lamb hotpot, duck stewed in ginger and other heat-building dishes. Lamb/mutton 羊肉 (yángròu) is a common dumpling filling, while ginger 姜 (jiāng) is used to spice up a lot of Dongzhi Festival food.
When we moved to Taiwan, I learned that the Dongzhi Festival is the season for Ginger “Mom” Duck Hotpot 姜母鸭 jiāng mǔ yā.
Everyone also drinks Ginger Tea 老姜茶 lǎo jiāng chá , while all the markets start selling cubes of Old Ginger with Brown Sugar 薑母黑糖 jiāng mǔ hēitáng. (My wife loves it because she tosses it into her tea and it becomes Teh Halia or ginger tea, as sold in Singapore and Malaysia.)
For our family, Dongzhi Festival comes right after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. It’s often the time to cuddle up with family and eat warm stews and soups. Maybe our favourite thing to do is get the body warm through hot springs 泡温泉 pào wēnquán! Our favorite place in the winter is the outdoor hotspring at Jiuzhizhe.
It’s also a quiet time of gratitude for those who came before us, and restful contemplation of how our year has gone as we prepare for all the energy and activities that will surely come with the new year.
Hope you have a wonderful Dongzhi Festival wherever you are in the world!