Dongzhi Festival, or the Winter Solstice Festival, which falls on Thursday this year, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Chinese and other East Asians marking the Dongzhi solar term, when sunshine is weakest and daylight shortest.
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, days will see longer sunlight hours and therefore an increase in positive energy flowing in. The philosophical significance of this is symbolized by the I Ching hexagram fu (returning in English).
One activity that occurs during these reunions and is especially popular in northern China, is eating of "jiaozi" or dumplings. The tradition is said to have originated with Zhang Zhongjing, one of the most eminent Chinese physicians during the late Han Dynasty. The story goes, that on a cold winter day Zhang saw the poor suffering from frostbite on their ears. Sympathetic to their suffering, he ordered his apprentices to make dumplings with lamb and other ingredients and distribute them among the poor to keep them warm and to keep their ears chilblain free. Since the dumplings were shaped like ears, Zhang named it dumpling that expels the cold. From that time on, eating dumplings on the day of Dongzhi has become a Chinese tradition.
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 we are now a year older and should behave better in the coming year. Even today, many Chinese around the world, especially the elderly, still insist that one is "a year older" right after the Dongzhi celebration instead of waiting for the Chinese New Year.
Another interesting custom is that many people consume invigorating foods during this particular winter festival. For many residents in Taiwan, winter is a time when most physical activities should be limited and one should eat well to nourish your body. This practice follows the habits shown by many animals that hibernate throughout winter months to rejuvenate and to preserve life. In order to fight low temperatures, it is necessary to eat more fatty and meaty foods during winter when your body can better absorb the rich and nutritional foods at this time due to a slower metabolic rate.
As "Dongzhi" means the "Extreme of Winter", Chinese regard it as the best time of the year to take tonic foods. Some of the most widely-popular winter foods to ward off colds and strengthen the body's immune system, are mutton hot pot and ginger duck hot pot. Other foods like chicken, pork and abalone are also common materials used in making food with nurturing herbs such as ginseng, deer horns and the cordyceps fungus.