Dongzhi or the Chinese Winter Solstice Festival falls on the shortest day and longest night of the year (usually December 21 or 22). This year, it falls on December 21. To truly get a feel of the festival, imagine living over 2,000 years ago during the rule of the Han Dynasty in China. All you see is a horizon of snow as icy winds sweep across the mountains. While it’s bleak outside, there’s warmth inside people’s homes. Families gather around a hot stove and steaming plates of dumplings. There’s calm amid winter, especially in knowing that spring isn’t too far away. Family, food, hope — that’s the spirit of the Dongzhi festival even today. The origins of the festival also go back to ancient Chinese principles of Yin and Yang.
History of Dongzhi
The story of Dongzhi starts sometime in the winter of 770 B.C. in China. Astronomers of the time observed that the nights are longest at a particular time of the year. Today, this period is more commonly known as the winter solstice in the West — an observance with deep cultural significance across different countries. In East Asia, the winter solstice means it’s time to celebrate Dongzhi.
People in China have been celebrating it since the time of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D.). The festival embodies the interplay between the ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ forces that form the foundations of Chinese philosophy. ‘Yang’ represents ‘masculinity’, whereas ‘Yin’ is its ‘feminine’ opposite. Traditionally, the Chinese believed that Yin reaches its peak on the winter solstice before gradually paving the way for Yang to regain strength. To make up for weakened Yang levels, people ate foods high in masculine energy during winter.
Foods like ‘jiaozi’ (meat-stuffed dumplings) and warming herbs like ginger and garlic were popular winter foods. It’s why Dongzhi festivities today mostly revolve around making and eating fatty dumplings. Dongzhi received prominence during the rule of the Tong and San dynasties when it became a public holiday. People started the day with a visit to the clan tombs to remember the spirits of their ancestors. Later in the evening, families gathered for a hearty meal of dumplings.
Dumplings, as an enduring symbol of Dongzhi, started in Northern China. Eating dumplings provided comfort since winters here were devastatingly harsh. People believed that the ear-like shape of dumplings would protect their ears from frostbite. Dongzhi festivities are different in Southern China, where temperatures aren’t extreme. Here, noodles and ‘tangyuan’ (rice flour balls) dominate dinner tables during the festival. The sweet rice flour balls symbolize family togetherness.
Zhou Fong, an esteemed intellectual, observes the winter solstice while using a sundial.
In Henan, people remember the kindness of Zhang Zhongjing — a physician who treated the poor and fed them soup with two dumplings.
The festival gains popularity during the reign of the Tang dynasty and also later, under the Song empire.
Government officials are granted a week’s holiday while ordinary folks reunite for extended visits with family.
Why is Dongzhi important?
Dongzhi is an ancient Chinese festival marking the start of the Winter Solstice. The day usually falls between 21 to 23 December each year. Inspired by the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang harmony, Dongzhi celebrates incoming positive energy following the solstice.
What do you eat during Dongzhi?
In North China, eating dumplings is central to Dongzhi celebrations. On the other hand, people in South China celebrate by feasting on noodles and tangyuan. Other popular dishes are mutton, soup, wontons, glutinous rice, and rice cakes.
What do people do during Dongzhi?
Like most festivals, Dongzhi is a time for family and feasting. Traditionally, Chinese communities remember their ancestors and make offerings on this day. The clan gathers for a meal later in the evening. Making dumplings or tangyuan (glutinous balls made from rice flour) is a timeless Dongzhi tradition.
Eat some dumplings
Enjoy a plate or two of dumplings to get into the spirit of Dongzhi. Whether you like them fried, steamed, or in soups — today’s officially the day to go all out.
Spend time with family
Share food and festivities with loved ones today. No matter what you decide to eat this Dongzhi, the togetherness of family will make it extra special.
Try making some dumplings today. If you’re just starting, perfect how to fold them. Kitchen whizzes can consider elevating old recipes with creative filling ideas.
5 Facts About Tangyuan That Will Blow Your Mind
A versatile dessert
Tangyuan is a sweet, round dumpling that you can steam, fry, or serve plain.
Little pops of joy
The delicious Tangyuan comes in sizes ranging from a ping-pong ball to a marble.
What’s in a name
It turns out that the name ‘Tangyuan’ is a sweet homophone for ‘reunion.’
A symbol of togetherness
The pronunciation of Tangyuan is similar to the Chinese phrase for ‘togetherness’ and ‘family gathering.’
A symbol of prosperity
Tangyuan is an auspicious food during the Chinese Lunar Year since the white dumplings resemble a full moon.
Why We Love Dongzhi
For insights into ancient cultures
Dongzhi is a long-standing tradition in Chinese culture. We love how the festival offers insight into how various parts of China celebrate it.
Food as a window to history
Dongzhi gives us compelling reasons to consider the history of what’s on our plate. We’re always fascinated by how food carries the story of ancient philosophies, cultures, climate, and habitats.
Any day that makes eating dumplings official is amazing in our books. It’s the perfect comfort food for any season.