Introduction to the Chinese Lunar Calendar: The Winter Solstice

Shi Ke

PureInsight | January 23, 2003

[] Around December 22, the sun reaches 270 degrees of celestial longitude, marking the start of the Winter Solstice. The book Illustrations of 72 Times in the Lunar Calendar, says, "The year-round conserved Qi reaches its maximum by then." Winter Solstice is a term that marks the change from fall to winter. On this day, daytime is the shortest and nighttime is the longest in the Northern Hemisphere. As the sun's latitude increases, daytime shortens and nighttime increases. Inside the Arctic Circle, it is polar night. After the Winter Solstice, the sun moves towards the Northern Hemisphere. So daytime in the Northern Hemisphere shortens and nighttime extends. It is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.

There is a Chinese saying which says that "It is not really cold until the Winter Solstice." The Winter Solstice is not the coldest day, however. After the Winter Solstice the temperature will continue to drop. In China, days after Winter Solstice are referred as the "Coldest Nines." There is also a folk song called "The nine Nines in the winter," which describes the weather change after the Winter Solstice: "In eighteen days of the first and second Nine, it is so cold that people are not willing to take their hands out. In days of the third and fourth Nine, all roads become icy. In the fifth and sixth Nine, willow trees along the river start budding. In the seventh Nine, ice on the river melts. In the eighth Nine, the wild goose comes back. After the ninth Nine, farmers begin to prepare their plowing and weeding." The Winter Solstice is the first day of the first Nine, followed by a number of Nines. This folk song summarizes the transformation of weather and phenomena in the 81 days of the nine Nines, in which the temperature drops to its lowest point and begins to warm up little by little. From this folk song, we can see that the third and forth Nine's are the coldest, that where the old saying "The coldest days are during the third Nine", or "the third Nine is freezing" comes from.

Origin of the Winter Solstice

In ancient China, the Winter Solstice was a very important festival, which has been dated back to over two thousand years ago. From the time of the Yin Dynasty, and through the Zhou and Qin Dynasties, the Winter Solstice was regarded as the first day of the New Year. In the Han dynasty, the Winter Solstice was referred to as the "Winter Festival." Government officers would hold a ceremony called the "Winter Celebration," which was considered an official holiday. The Post Hanshu wrote, "At the Winter Solstice, people calm down and relax. Government offices are closed and officers are off from work. They will choose a good time to look back on themselves." On that day everyone from royal families to government officers stopped working and the army stood down. On the borders all gates were closed, and businesses were closed. Family and friends exchanged good food, and visited each other. Everyone spent the day in a relaxed and happy manner. After the Song dynasty, the Winter Solstice became a day for remembering ancestors, on which people would salute their parents and other elderly people, and the emperor would go to the suburb and hold a big ceremony to worship the heavens. The Winter Solstice was once referred as the "Quasi New Year". In the book Records of Qingjia, it read, "Winter Solstice was as important as the New Year", and it was called "Winter Solstice Festival". This showed how important Winter Solstice was to ancient people. People believed that the Winter Solstice was the natural result of interactions between Yin and Yang, and it was a good blessing from heaven.

Folklore about Winter Solstice

An old saying in Beijing is "Having wonton at the Winter Solstice, and noodles at the Summer Solstice." Why was wonton preferred on the Winter Solstice? There is a folk tale which says that, during the time of the Han dynasty, the Hun people in northern China often invaded and brought troubles to people. There were two major tribes led by the Hun and Dun, and they were very vicious. Chinese people hated them very much, so they made wonton or Hundun in Chinese, using flour sheets and meat stuffing. Chinese people ate wontons, with the hope to avoid war and have peaceful lives. It is believed that the wonton was invented on the Winter Solstice; it became a custom for everyone to eat wonton on that day.

In Henan province, people eat Chinese dumplings on the Winter Solstice. They call it "frozen ears" because the shape of the dumpling was similar to human ear. Where did this custom come from? It was said that Zhang Zhongjing, a miracle doctor whose patients called him a saint, lived and worked in the city of Changsha as a government official. When it was time to retire, he went back to live at his hometown of Nanyang. He arrived back in Nanyang in the wintertime. It was freezing, with heavy snow and strong winds. He saw many poor people, who had little clothing to keep warm, with frostbitten ears. Zhang was saddened when he saw this. He asked his students to set up a tent near the east gate of Nanyang and put mutton, chili peppers, and some herbs that could dispel the cold Qi, together in a pot and boiled them. The cooked medication was then chopped into pieces, and wrapped into ear-shaped dumplings with flour sheets, then boiled in the pot again. This food was named "coldness dispelling and frozen-ear healing soup." After eating it, peoples' frostbitten ears were healed. After that people made dumplings for the Winter Solstice and called them "frozen ears." The Chinese people now call them Jiaozi. Others call it "flat food" or "boiled dumplings." This tradition has been passed from generation to generation.

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