In the modern west the solstices are said to be the first day of winter and summer. Yet an older tradition marks the solstices as the middle of the season. Especially in northern Europe the summer solstice is still celebrated as Midsummer. The celebration of the winter solstice is still popular but has lost much of it’s focus as midwinter. That it was once thought so is evidenced in the poem by Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti “In the Bleak Midwinter”. The subject is the nativity of Jesus and was set to music as a Christmas carol by Gustav Holst, connecting it to the solstice period rather than January or February.
In the Chinese tradition, solstices, as well as equinoxes, have remained the mid-point of the seasons as they once were in the west. Originally celebrated as the end of the harvest season work, it is now marked by family reunions and an all night feast. It is also the first day of the 24th solar term which runs until the fifth of January. The pentads for the term mirror the activities in the natual world. The first is 蚯蚓結, ‘Earthworms form knots’,referring to the hibernation of earthworms. In truth, earthworms go very deep into the earth, curl into a ball, coat themselves with their slime and go into hibernation. The second is 麋角解, ‘Deer shed their antlers’. Male deer do drop their antlers each year after the end of the mating season. As usual there is a term that causes pause. The third term is 水泉動, ‘Spring water moves’. I can’t imagine water doesn’t freeze in China as it does elsewhere in cold weather. So I wonder about the nature of the movement the spring water is making. It could be it flows from warmth in the earth as you sometimes see streams flowing beneath a coating of ice. I can speculate that it has to do with yin and yang rather than flow, but I can’t find anything to substantiate this theory.
The Dongzhi Festival is an important one in China, but it’s also celebrated in Japan and Korea. As with most holidays there are traditional signature foods that accompany the celebration. In China it is dumplings. In the south they are pink and white tangyuan and in the north jiaodzi. Tanguan are made from a rice flour dough and stuffed with things like red bean or black sesame. Another favorite filling is fragrant osmanthus flowers which are also drunk as a tea. The filled dumplings are cooked in either a sweet soup or savory broth and both are served together in one bowl. In the north they also make them but more common are jiaodzi with a savory filling like pork with cabbage or Chinese chives. Jiaozi are said to be shaped like ears to show the people they were meant to treat frostbitten ears and warm the body.
In Korea patjuk (팥죽), a thick red bean porridge is the main offering. In older days a bowl was placed in every room in the house and out buildings to ward off evil but now it is sufficient to eat a bowl or two on the day. The color red is thought to contain yang energy which drove off the evil. It is eaten at other times but what makes it special for dong chi, as it’s called in Korean, is the addition of small dumplings made from glutinous rice flour. They are known as saealshim, or bird eggs, and should be just a bit smaller than quail eggs. It is seasoned with salt or sugar, depending on personal preference either is common.
In Japan the practice is to eat kabocha, a winter squash, for winter solstice.It is very healthy, with lots of Vitamin A and carotene, as you can infer from it’s bright orange interior. It is a squash that keeps very well if properly stored and so is valued in winter when other vegetables are scarce. The most common way of preparing it is to simply cut it into small pieces, skin and all, simmer in a dashi stock until the stock is almost gone and cooled to serve.
I love dumplings of any kind and soup and squash. I could easily combine these dishes into a nice meal. I have kabocha set aside from the fall and it is the perfect opportunity to prepare them. Certainly a combination of warming, satisfying foods would make for an enoyable solstice celebration. I do celebrate the winter solstice as I look forward to longer days. It makes getting through the worst of the cold much easier when you have sunlight. And if the foods are also auspicious and evil dispelling, certainly that can’t hurt.