Folk Custom

The Interesting Winter Solstice  

Ancient Chinese astronomers divided the whole year into 24 solar terms according to climate changes. There is one term every two weeks, and the Winter Solstice is the 22nd solar term. It often falls between December 21 and 23. The Chinese in ancient times found out that the Winter Solstice was the shortest day in a year, after which the sun begins its slow return to the North. The lunar Chinese New Year will only be one month and a half away from the Winter Solstice.

There may be two reasons why the Chinese hold celebrations on this day. One is because after a hard working year, farmers always take a rest to enjoy their bountiful harvest. The second reason has to do with the theory of Yin and Yang. In Chinese philosophy, Yin symbolizes the feminine and negative qualities of the universe while Yang the masculine and positive. It is dialectical and dynamic in a sense. When something has reached one extreme, it will turn to the opposite. On the day of the Winter Solstice, the Yin is at its peak with the longest night. From then on, it will give way to the light and warmth of Yang. Chinese people consider it a right time for optimism and joy.

It used to be a grandiose ceremony for rulers in ancient history. The emperor would worship heaven and ancestors with the court officials' companion and troops stationed around. Colorful flags would flap stiffly in the north wind. The sound of pipes and drums would echo in the brightly decorated streets.

To the common people, the Winter Solstice means a joyful gathering. They would put on their best clothes, visit friends and celebrate it late into the longest night. Food plays an important part in the festivities but the customs vary depending on location. In the chilly northern part, people eat mutton and dog meat, which are able to bring warmth to the body and dispel the cold. Noodles are popular in the inland areas, while Tangyuan, (a kind of stuffed dumpling made of glutinous rice served in soup), is widely liked in the southern part.

Since the pace of living has become faster and people are now busier, some customs have fallen into oblivion. However, quite a few have been handed down, such as the old 'cold dispelling' song. Before the translation is presented, something has to be made clear. From the Winter Solstice to the spring are a total of 81 days, which are divided into nine nine-day periods. The day of the Winter Solstice marks the beginning of the first period.

Since people have to stay indoors in the freezing cold weather, many kinds of entertainment have been invented to help pass the time. One is painting to welcome spring. On the Winter Solstice, people hang an unfinished painting on the wall, which contains a plum tree and 81 uncolored flowers. Everyday a flower is painted red and when the whole work is done, the bright blossoms indoors will meet the early bursting buds outside the window. Another activity is calligraphy, which offers the same result.

People write a line of an old poem on a vertically hung scroll, which means the weeping willow in the courtyard, treasures springtime the most. In Chinese, it contains nine characters and each with nine strokes. The elderly will tell the children to write one stroke everyday. It has proven effective to teach them words and to train their patience at the same time.

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