In the Gregorian calendar, the Winter Solstice usually falls around December 21, and more often refers in particular to the day when the sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 270°. It marks the longest night and the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. In China, the Winter Solstice was originally celebrated as an end-of-harvest festival. Today, it is observed with a family reunion over the long night, and pink and white tangyuan are eaten in sweet broth to symbolize family unity and prosperity.
The Winter Solstice, one of the most important solar terms in Chinese lunar calendar, was established as early as the Spring and Autumn Period. It was also a traditional festival, called the Winter Festival, the Changzhi Festival or Yashui.
The Winter Solstice became a festival in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and thrived in the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty. As the Han people thought of the Winter Solstice as the “Winter Festival,” officials took one day off and organized celebration activities. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Winter Solstice was considered as an official fixed day to worship and offer scarifies to God and to ancestors. Common people normally showed their respect to their parents and elders. Until today, people in some areas of China continue to view the Winter Solstice as an important festival.
In northern China where it can get bitterly cold, our ancestors lacked sufficiently warm clothing and ate hot food to stay warm. Gradually, a saying developed along the lines of only by eating dumplings can you avoid becoming so frozen that your ears drop off. Today, this custom remains widespread, and people in the north continue to eat steaming hot and delicious dumplings. Residents in southern China often get together to have a meal made of red bean and glutinous rice to drive away ghosts and other evil.
The Taiwanese still maintain the custom of offering nine-layer cakes to their ancestors. They make special cakes in the shape of chickens, ducks, tortoises, pigs, cows, and sheep with glutinous rice flour, and then steam them on different layers of a pot. In Chinese tradition, these animals stand for auspiciousness. People with the same surname or from the same family gather around their ancestral temples to worship their ancestors.
I updated this article on April 18, 2013
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