On December 7th we move into the 21st solar term of 大雪 Dàxuě , or Taisetsu in Japanese, 대설 Daeseol in Korean and Đại tuyết in Vietnamese. It is literally translated as major or great snow. It snows heavily for the first time in the year, in northern China, at least and is the start of the really snowy season. It will end on 21 December. We actually did get snow today on the 5th, although it could hardly be called major. It’s hard to believe it was 60F/16C on Sunday. The weather has been very erratic but winter is here, nonetheless.
The first of the three pentads for major snow ls 鶡旦不鳴, ‘The long tailed pheasant does not cry at dawn.” As winter progresses, even this active bird slows and ceases to crow. The second is 虎始交, ‘Tigers begin to mate” The third 荔挺生 I have found no translation I am happy with. The first character is sometimes translated as lichee. Sheng, the third character can mean to grow and ting, the second character can mean straight, erect or to stick out. I think this probably refers to the blooming of the lichees. They reproduce from new growth at the ends of branches and do bloom in winter. This happens mostly in southern China as lichees are considered a tropical fruit and grown in Guangdong and Fujian in southern China.
During Major Snow, the snow becomes heavy and begins to accumulate on the ground. The temperature drops significantly. In North China it may snow for days, breaking tree branches and blocking the roads. The natural scenery is “ice blockading for hundreds miles and snow flying through thousands miles”. In the South, the snowflakes fly and the world turns white. There is a proverb about the snowfall. “A timely snow promises a good harvest”. As the snow covers the ground, insect pests in the ground winter will be killed by the low temperature.
Wintersweet usually blossoms in mid-to-late December in some southern cities of China. Sometimes it even blooms earlier. Wintersweet originated in China and is highly appreciated in Chinese culture for its endurance in severe winters. With pine and bamboo, it is referred to as one of the Three Friends of Winter. Chimonanthus preacox, to give it’s botanical name, was domesticated during the Song Dynasty and inspired courtly poems from the eleventh century; it flowers through to the Chinese New Year, when flowering sprigs are used as hair ornaments. In China, prunings are dried and kept to perfume linen cupboards.
Lamb and mutton are very popular with Chinese people during Major Snow, especially in the north. It is excellent for nourishing the body, promoting blood circulation and providing protection against the cold. People in Chongqing like to have potted lamb soup or stewed lamb soup with their families and friends. Nanjing residents like to stew the lamb with yams or wolfberries to make it more nutritious.
During Major Snow, Chinese people in South China make sausages, an important part of preparation for the Spring Festival. The best meat for sausage is that of the pig’s buttock. The sausage should be dried in a well-ventilated place in the shade. After a week, they are edible. The sections of sausage are usually boiled or fried.
Another food which grows in popularity at this time, warm porridge or congee is considered to help increase one’s personal heat and nourish the body in cold weather, much as oatmeal is considered in the west. In China, there is custom to eat red bean porridge on the first day of Winter Solstice and eight-treasure porridge on the eighth day of the last month of the lunar year. In addition, there are other porridges such as wheat porridge, sesame porridge, radish porridge, and walnut porridge. Whether you make a Chinese style porridge or a bowl of oatmeal, it’s a good way to start the day in this season. I like to doctor up my porridge with herbs and my oatmeal with dried fruits and nuts, making them even healthier.
The Chinese people during this period are on guard against the outbreak of respiratory illness, which they believe can be prevented by wearing a warm scarf to protect the neck and throat. Because we got that early ice storm I noticed many people are having colds and bronchitis already. Having no heat for several days was partly to blame. Also, during Major Snow, it is drier and colder, so people should drink more water. But there is a right way one should go about it, not drinking too much water at once or drinking very cold water, especially after exercise. For those with efficient home heating, the dryness can get excessive, so this ancient Chinese advice is still very relevant.