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5 Things You Didn't Know About The Winter Solstice Festival

It's not just about eating colourful balls.


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5 Things You Didn't Know About The Winter Solstice Festival
Image: Asia Holidays
We know that some of you are currently preparing your heart, mind, soul and stomach for Christmas, but there is another important festival some of you should be familiar with that is celebrated just before the jolly season – Winter Solstice.
 
The Winter Solstice Festival is celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians usually on or around 22 December every year.
 
The colourful and sweet rice balls soaked in a bowl of soup may just be the only thing some of you know about this festival. So, here are some interesting things you probably didn’t know about the tangyuan (we’ll get more into this later in this article) day!

1) It is the peak of winter

The Winter Solstice Festival is also known as dongzhi, which literally means ‘the extreme of winter’. On this day, areas in the northern hemisphere have the shortest day and longest night.

This day will then become sort of a U-turn and the following days will come with longer daylight and shorter nights.
 
But we don't see this here in Malaysia lah, of course.
The reason for the shorter days has to do with how the Earth travels around the sun. And since we don’t get to experience winter here in Malaysia, we’re about to do a bit of science talk here. So bear with us for a few seconds.
 
The northern and southern hemispheres are divided by the equator. As the Earth tilts at 23.5°, both hemispheres obviously receive different amounts of sunlight. Come December, the northern hemisphere is tilted further away from the sun. Hence why winter time begins in countries positioned north of the equator.
 
Now the winter solstice happens when the northern hemisphere is at the most extreme angle away from the sun. And that’s why we celebrate dongzhi.
 
Although if you want to be super technical and specific, there’s no reason for our country to celebrate this festival lah, but don’t be a party pooper. The more celebrations, the merrier!

2) You grow one year older on this day

The Winter Solstice festival is also called yasui or ‘Asian birthday’ among the Chinese.
 
As we mentioned earlier, Winter Solstice acts as a turning point, so the passing of this day also marks the start of a new solar term.
 
Oprah knew.
Many Chinese, especially the elderly, would consider this day everyone’s birthday because they believe that the whole world has grown one year older after this point, instead of waiting for the Lunar New Year.

3) It is almost as important as Chinese New Year

Speaking of the Lunar New Year, the Winter Solstice Festivals is also considered one of the most important festivals, second only to the biggest Chinese celebration in the world. Some Chinese families even celebrate it as the ‘Small New Year’.
 
History states that during the Zhou and Qin dynasties between 1046 and 207 BC, Winter Solstice was the beginning of a new year. This was when ancestor worshipping ceremonies and family reunions happen.
 
A dragon dance performance during the Winter Solstice Festival.
Sounds almost like CNY, right? If only we get angpow’s on this day too!
 
The Han dynasty between 202 BC and 220 AD was when people actually considered this day as an official holiday. Officials would hold grand ceremonies for the commoners to exchange gifts for celebration.

4) The colourful balls have meaning

Back in the day when majority of the people were farmers, they couldn’t afford meat during festivals and celebrations. So they made tangyuan, or glutinous rice balls, instead on Winter Solstice.
 
But Winter Solstice is not the only time of the year you get to eat these sweet and delicious balls.
In case you’re not familiar, tangyuan are made with sweet rice and served in hot sugar water. But due to the sticky nature of glutinous rice, some children are not able to swallow them properly, so people started making them in red colour using a different type of rice flour.
 
Now, we’ve got a variety of tangyuan that come in different colours and fillings, like red bean paste, crushed peanut or sesame paste.
 
This is how the sesame paste filling looks like.
Chinese families often come together to make these rice balls together to symbolise reunion. Each family member would then get at least one ball that is bigger than the rest. You might want to check with your mom if you didn’t.

5) Not everyone celebrates with the colourful balls

Yes, Chinese living in southern Chinese and other parts of the world do celebrate eating tangyuan during the Winter Solstice Festival. But in northern China, people actually eat savoury dumplings.
 
Now we're getting hungry.
This tradition apparently came from a guy named Zhang Zhongjing who lived during the Han dynasty. He was a famous medical scientist who saw the poor suffering from coldness and hunger during winter. Many of them suffered from severe chilblains (small and itchy swellings on the skin because of reaction to the cold) on their ears.
 
Zhang decided to make dumplings stuffed with lamb, medicine and other ingredients to feed the poor and keep them warm. These dumplings were apparently uniquely shaped like ears, which led to the dumplings we know today.
 
Boy, can we have some of that?
In some parts of China, the saying that your ears will be frozen if you don’t eat dumplings on Winter Solstice lasted to this day!

Do you celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival? What tangyuan colours or flavours do you love to make?

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