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If you are new to Hong Kong, the month of December might only call forth Christmas holidays and New Year’s Eve parties. For seasoned Hongkongers, December also means the arrival of another holiday that is as crucial to our cultural heritage as Chinese New Year, and that holiday is the Dongzhi Festival (冬至; “winter’s extreme”)—also known as the Winter Solstice Festival. But what are the origins of it and how do people celebrate this holiday? Without further ado, here’s your ultimate guide to the Winter Solstice Festival in Hong Kong.
Dongzhi is a festival and an important day in the Lunar calendar. Celebrating winter solstice, people typically pay their respects to their ancestors on this day with a variety of offerings, usually in the forms of food, and some will even visit ancestors who have passed away at their tombs. With a long history and various specific customs, Dongzhi celebrations are unmissable and crucial to the traditional culture of Hong Kong.
Dongzhi was celebrated as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). In the Lunar calendar, Dongzhi marks the twenty-second solar term and the winter solstice. Originally, people celebrate the end of the autumn harvest on the day of Dongzhi. Nowadays, people usually gather for a meal on winter solstice night whilst enjoying seasonal dishes.
In Hong Kong, most ethnic Chinese families will gather for a meal in celebration of the winter solstice, typically on the day of Dongzhi, but it is common for people to have this celebration dinner earlier or later, depending on the family’s availability.
It is also customary for most companies in the city to give employees the option to leave work early to be home for the winter solstice, as it is a holiday much like the Mid-Autumn Festival, where union and togetherness are valued highly.
Some might choose to visit their ancestors’ tombs on winter solstice, bringing with them offerings of food and other forms of commodity. Others will choose to pay their respects to ancestors at home, where food served for the evening meal will first be offered to the domestic shrine of the ancestors before being consumed at the dinner table.
Glutinous rice dumplings (湯圓; tong1 jyun4) are a common treat eaten on winter solstice. And much like when this dessert is consumed during Mid-Autumn Festival, the glutinous rice dumplings are meant to represent togetherness, as winter solstice celebrations often bring together family members that have been apart for some time.
Another common food eaten on Dongzhi is fish maw (花膠; faa1 gaau1; “flower plastic”) which is usually cooked in a soup with nutritious ingredients like dried red dates (紅棗; hung4 zou2), dried yam (淮山, waai4 saan1), dried sea coconut (海底椰; hoi2 dai2 je4; “coconut at the bottom of the sea”), and dried longan (圓肉; jyun4 juk6; “round meat”).
While a lot of households typically dine at home and prepare their own winter solstice meals, a lot of families today might also prefer to dine out for Dongzhi. Once the month of December rolls around, you will see a selection of Dongzhi menus popping up left, right, and centre at Chinese restaurants and teahouses. Check out our list of the best Dongzhi menus this winter solstice if you’re interested in celebrating the holiday.
Although the winter solstice holds a similar name and meaning for inhabitants of Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea, and Japan, you will find that celebrations on the longest night of the year vary across these locations. Let’s take a look at some of the major differences as well as similarities they have to Dongzhi Festival customs in Hong Kong.
Many customs of Dongzhi in mainland China are similar to the ones practiced by families in Hong Kong. People gather for a meal, some visit their ancestors’ tombs, and some worship them at their home alters. One difference is that in northern China, the must-have traditional Dongzhi food is your ordinary yet delicious jiǎozi (饺子; dumplings).
In Korea, the winter solstice is called 동지 (dong chi), which sounds similar to Dongzhi in Chinese and Cantonese, but it is also called “Small Seol.” Like mainland China and Hong Kong, it is also customary for families to celebrate the holiday together. The traditional Dongzhi food in Korea is red bean porridge (팥죽; patjuk) with round rice cakes (새알심; saealsim; “bird’s egg”) as the rice cakes looks like bird’s eggs.
Tōji (冬至; とうじ) is also one of the 24 solar terms in the Lunar calendar. In some parts of Japan, people celebrate the winter solstice by drinking grapefruit hot water and eating pumpkin as the solstice nears. The habit of eating pumpkin originated from a harvest-related reason. As the solstice announces the coming of winter, traditionally, the provision of produce during colder months when vegetables are scarce is crucial to people’s survival, and pumpkins happen to be among the many produce that can be harvested in this time.