Towards the light...
It’s coming up to the Covid pandemic two-year mark as the end of 2021 approaches and there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of this tunnel, well for a while yet as along comes another variant, the latest being Omicron. I haven’t really felt much like celebrating the incoming New Year and all the like, so this year it seems more apt to focus on something more positive, more natural, the Winter Solstice.
Here in China, the Winter Solstice is called ‘Dongzhi ‘. It became officially a festival during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) and lasts till today. During Han Dynasty times, it was a big thing, people had days off ; businessmen closed their businesses and relatives and friends gave each other food as gifts in celebration of the lighter days to come.
So, this month on the shortest day, I tried a bowl of Tang Yuan, the traditional meal for the longest night. Tang Yuan 湯圓, is a dessert made of glutinous rice balls served in a sweet clear soup. The texture is surprisingly chewy and the filling is usually sesame paste and red bean paste. They’re fairly easy to make with the ingredients of glutinous rice flour, water and food colouring; red and green.
With China being a big country geographically, different cities celebrate Dongzhi in varied ways. It’s true that many people will eat different kinds of dumplings and drink the winter solstice wine, but there are also some special foods unique to certain cities. In Beijing where it’s very cold in winter, people eat dumplings; in Wuxi, dumplings are eaten with a variety of stuffings such as sesame, sweetened bean paste, meat and carrot. In Chaoshan, the dumplings are sweet, and in Ningxia, the dumplings are made from green onion, ginger, garlic chilli and mutton, while in Guangxi, Changzhou and Nanjing, Tofu is favoured.
However China’s not the only country that has Winter Solstice’s traditions. In Scandinavia, Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13 the solstice by the old calendar and it marks the start of the Christmas season with a procession of young women in white robes, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads light the way through the darkness of winter. Gingersnaps, saffron-flavoured buns, and Glogg are traditionally served. The Persian Winter Solstice festival Yalda celebrates the victory of light over darkness and ‘Yalda’ means ‘birth.’ Yalda is marked by family gatherings, candles, poetry readings, followed by a feast to get through the longest night of the year. Nuts and fruits, including watermelon and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten. In Canada, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society created the city’s Solstice Lantern Festival. On the night of the solstice, processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. The winter solstice in Japan, called Toji, has a few interesting customs associated with it. Traditionally, a winter squash called Kabocha is eaten, one of only a few crops that would have been available at the time of the year. A hot bath with Yuzu citrus fruits is believed to refresh body and spirit, ward off illness, and soothe dry winter skin.
So for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere we can look forward to lighter nights and the coming of Spring while the Southern Hemisphere are due theirs in June 2022. Wishing you all a fabulous belated 2022 as we in the Northern Hemisphere move towards the light, Happy New Year!