Saturday, December 12, 2015


Ear Dumplings

If the winter solstice happens most obviously in the temperate zones of the planet that are closest to the north pole, where the tipping away from the sun causes extreme cold and hardship for humans, then the Chinese must have their own traditions about it, even festivals, special foods, and concern for family and children.  So I googled.  This is content from the highest site on their list according to their cryptic formula.  I’ve edited it a bit, so here’s the url:

“Winter solstice is a solar term in Chinese lunar calendar, and a traditional festival as well. It falls on December 22 or 23 (solar calendar) every year. . .  Early in the Spring and Autumn Period over 2500 years ago, winter solstice was mensurated [measured] by the Chinese by observing the sun with a gnomon shadow template.  [Sundial] . . . After winter solstice, the coldest period comes to the northern part of the globe, which is commonly called "JinJiu", suggesting that once winter solstice comes, we will meet the coldest time ahead.

“Commonly known as "Potlatch" [A NW Native American term !!??], "Changzhi Festival" and "Yasui", etc., winter solstice is a rather big festival attached with great importance by the Chinese people, thus the saying "Winter solstice is as important as the Spring Festival". It is a custom to celebrate the arrival of winter solstice, which is regarded as worthy since it is the beginning of a solar term circulation. . .  It is said that winter solstice was considered as New Year's Day in the Zhou Dynasty. Such a saying is still going round in the south of the Yangtze River that "People will be one year older after finishing the winter solstice dinner", which is commonly called "tiansui" (growing older). In the Tang and Song Dynasties, it was on winter solstice that heaven and ancestor worship was performed. On this day, the emperor would hold a solemn heaven worship ceremony in the suburbs and common people would offer sacrifice to their late parents and ancestors.

“. . . People in the prefectures attach great importance to the Winter Solstice. Several days previously, friends and relatives present gifts of food to one another. The streets are crowded with people carrying baskets and boxes which are generally called "winter solstice trays". The night before is called Winter Solstice Eve.

“On that night families invite guests to food and drinks. This dinner is called the festival banquet. Married women who happen to be staying with their parents must return to their husbands. Families, rich and poor alike, buy food to offer to their ancestors. Some put up the portraits of their ancestors. The ceremonies and customs are more splendid than those of the ordinary festivals. . . 

Here’s what the anonymous Wikipedia author says.  I left the links in but not the bibliography.

“The Dōngzhì Festival or Winter Solstice Festival (Chinese: 冬至; pinyin: Dōngzhì; literally: "the extreme of Winter") is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians during the Dongzhi solar term (winter solstice) on or around December 22 (according to East Asia time).  In 2014, the festival falls on Monday, December 22.
The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. After this celebration, there will be days with longer daylight hours and therefore an increase in positive energy flowing in. The philosophical significance of this is symbolized by the I Ching hexagram (復, "Returning").

Traditionally, the Dongzhi Festival is also a time for the family to get together. One activity that occurs during these get-togethers (especially in the southern parts of China and in Chinese communities overseas) is the making and eating of tangyuan (湯圓) or balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize reunion.Tangyuan are made of glutinous rice flour and sometimes brightly coloured. Each family member receives at least one large tangyuan in addition to several small ones. The flour balls may be plain or stuffed. They are cooked in a sweet soup or savory broth with both the ball and the soup/broth served in one bowl. It is also often served with a mildly alcoholic unfiltered rice wine containing whole grains of glutinous rice (and often also Sweet Osmanthus flowers), called jiuniang.

A modern version of the tangyuan

“In northern China, people typically eat dumplings on Dongzhi. It is said to have originated from Zhang Zhongjing in the Han Dynasty. On one cold winter day, he saw the poor suffering from chilblains on their ears. Feeling sympathetic, he ordered his apprentices to make dumplings with lamb and other ingredients, and distribute them among the poor to keep them warm, to keep their ears from getting chilblains. Since the dumplings were shaped like ears, Zhang named the dish "qùhán jiāoěr tāng" (祛寒嬌耳湯) or dumpling soup that expels the cold. From that time on, it has been a tradition to eat dumplings on the day of Dongzhi.

“Old traditions also require people with the same surname or from the same clan to gather at their ancestral temples to worship on this day. There is always a grand reunion dinner following the sacrificial ceremony.

“The festive food is also a reminder that celebrators are now a year older and should behave better in the coming year..


Those alert to culture cues will realize that these solstice ceremonies share with the Christian version such elements as family gathering, renewal, restoring harmony in the Heavens, special foods, and emphasis on generosity and connection through gifts, esp. for the poor.

In Taiwan, a subset of Chinese, the people eat tangyuan on this day.In an interesting twist, in accordance with ancient Taiwanese history, many people take some of the tangyuan that have been used as offerings and stick them on the back of the door or on windows and tables and chairs. These "empowered" tangyuan supposedly serve as protective talismans to keep evil spirits from coming close to children.”  Doesn’t Zhang Zhongjing sound like Saint Nicholas?  Or Good King Wenceslas?

Such festivals connect the abstract and elevated ideas of the spiritual cosmos to the special savory foods of the culture.  Those with gluten allergies are going to be in trouble here.  I didn’t see anything about wheat that is best for noodles as opposed to wheat that is suitable for baking.  The missing element is leavening.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it has something to do with the European fondness for beer, which is fermented with yeast.  What does this imply about the Jewish Passover and the unleavened Communion wafers?

The Chinese are just enough different from us to create awareness of underlying similarity.  One of their strategies is to skip over the sometimes problematic parent generations by reaching back to the great- and great-great-grandparents who are blurred enough by time to brush away some of the bitterness.  I keep on my bedroom bureau a photo of my Strachan grandmother, who was still a Swan/Finney at that time.  Swan is a Metis name.  Finney is Scots/Irish.  This suits my instinct for multiple -- mutt -- identities, but notice these are names of people living where winter is quite real.

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