Aside from making this day a public holiday, the importance of Winter Solstice (Dongzhi) has often been downplayed in recent days. We all know that Winter Solstice is the day in which the night is longest; it is a day when families plan ahead for the big Dongzhi Dinner. Most of us are also familiar with the Chinese saying that “Winter Solstice is as big as Chinese New Year”. But Dongzhi is more than just a family gathering and eating dumplings, the traditional food for the celebration. During the Han Dynasty, the Winter Solstice was much like a holy day. Here are some interesting legends or facts about the festival.
Firstly, we know that family dinner is an important part of celebrating Dongzhi. What our generation did not realise is that there is strong implication of filial piety surrounding the Dongzhi dinner. The ancient Chinese believed that though Dongzhi is in the midst of winter, it indicates the coming of Spring, a time of returning home. So, it is, therefore, an important time for the whole family, wherever they are, to go home and be together. This day also used to include ancestor worship, and members of the family who did not go home on Winter Solstice would be viewed as refusing to acknowledge their ancestors, which is a great sin in our culture – even grounds for being disinherited. So, do not think it is a public holiday to party with friends.
So, what about the dumplings? The festive food for Dongzhi is dumplings, but there are many kinds of dumplings in the Chinese culture, and various legends about eating dumplings on Winter Solstice. One interesting one is the story of Wonton, meat dumplings in soup which is the most popular in Macao. Legend has it that during the Han Dynasty, barbarians from the North constantly harassed villages at the frontier region, creating great resentment amongst the people. The two leaders of the barbarians were named Won and Ton. To express their anger, the frontier villagers wrapped dumplings with meat, and named them wonton. Eating wonton was a way to show their hatred towards the barbarians, and their hope for peace to come. As legend has it that wonton was created on Winter Solstice, it became a tradition to cook and eat wonton on the day.
What about the almost-religious practice of Dongzhi? In ancient China, it was common knowledge that Winter Solstice is the day where the Chi (the yin yang energy) is changed from Yin (dark) to Yang (bring), which was believed to be a blessing from heaven.
In order to celebrate this special blessing, the emperor made the day a public holiday. It is even recorded in the book ‘The History of the Later Han’, that Winter Solstice is for “gentlemen” (the term was broadly used in ancient China to refer to people of virtue) to rest their body and mind. So, no one was to work on the day; there could be no meetings no matter how urgently matters had to be resolved. Armies were to stand down, borders were to be closed, even business and tourism were to be ceased on the day. Relatives and friends were to share food with each other, and families were to go home and spend the day together.
Anyway, today is supposed to be the day of rest for our minds and souls as our chi changes from yin to yang. So, we should now put down our newspaper, turn off our computers, go home, do nothing and eat wanton for peace with our family. Happy Winter Solstice!