Winter Solstice, the 2nd Most Important Day on Chinese Calendar

The 24 solar terms in the Chinese calendar are determined by, not a human ruler’s will, but the pulse of Nature – the change of season. Of the 24, winter solstice, the 22nd on the roll, is evidently the first solar term to be established during the Spring and Autumn period about 2,500 years ago. It has been celebrated as a major seasonal festival ever since, for this, it is also called Winter Festival (冬节) and the Second New Year (亚岁).

As the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 270° at the winter solstice, the occasion marks the shortest day and longest night in a year. In other words, on the day the backward force yin is at its peak, thus the solar term is given the Chinese name 冬至, meaning the extremity (极致) of the winter season. From that moment on, the worst is over as yin is in the decline while yang returns with light and warmth, as it is observed in The Book of Han (《汉书》) by Ban Gu of Eastern Han Dynasty (东汉班固: 32-92 ): “冬至阳气起,君道长,故贺。”

When this natural trend is applied to social situations, the winter solstice is traditionally viewed as a time to bring order to chaos and build harmony from conflict.

Historically, at this seasonal turning point, Chinese emperor would lead his court officials to pay tribute to Heaven and ancestors. The ritualistic processions were escorted by armed troops and honour guards stationed around, with colourful silk banners fluttering in the winds, and the sound of gongs and drums solemnly proclaiming the arrival of the yang force.

In the heyday of the winter solstice celebration during the most intellectually advanced era in Chinese history, the brilliant Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), a three-day holiday was officially declared. By then the daily court meetings were suspended, official businesses were put on hold, shops stopped trading, students enjoyed a vacation, while literature-wise folks sent congratulation cards (贺片) to each other, and literature-wise and unwise folks all gave away cold protection tools as gifts to relatives, friends and associates.

Winter Solstice and Chinese New Year

The weather condition on the day of the winter solstice was and has still been used by many as a convenient tool to forecast the state of the coming winter season.

It is believed that if a winter solstice falls at the beginning of the eleventh lunar month, the cold season would be very cold to the point that it could freeze cows to death; and worse still, if it falls at the end of the eleventh lunar month, even ghosts won’t be able to survive the assault of the icy spell. On the other hand, if it occurs in the middle of the lunar November, a warm winter can be expected (冬在头冻死牛,冬在中暖烘烘,冬在尾冻死鬼).

When the weather condition of Chinese New Year’s Day is concerned, it allegedly works like this: a rainy winter solstice day would bring a sunny new year’s day, and vice versa (晴冬至,烂过年;烂冬至,晴过年). As of today, December 21, 2020, is lunar November 7, and most cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai, experience a sunny day, a cold and web Chinese New Year Day of Metal Ox year, on February 21, 2021, is expected.

Song of Nine & Nine (九九歌)

In the Chinese lunar calendar, the winter season consists of 81 days, which starts from the winter solstice and ends at the beginning of the spring. The 81 days are again divided into 9 sections, and each section corresponds to a particular seasonal condition.

Below is the Song of Nine & Nine (九九歌), mainly illustrating the seasonal change in the areas of the middle and low reaches of the Yellow River:

五九六九, 沿河看柳,
七九河开, 八九雁来,
九九加一九, 遍地耕牛走。

During the First Nine and the Second, I keep my hands covered;
In the Third Nine and the Forth Nine, I walk on the frozen river bed;
When it’s the Fifth Nine and the Sixth, I see the willows along the shores sprout new buds;
Then come the Seventh, the river thaws; and the Eighth, the wild goose arrives;
Eventually, the Ninth of Nine descends, farm cattle are everywhere tilling the fields.

Food Consumed on the Winter Solstice

As always, special food is an indispensable part of any Chinese festivity. At the winter solstice, it is jiaozi and round dumpling soup rule the day in northern and southern China respectively.

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