Memories of Winter Solstice in the Kampong

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What to eat during “winter solstice” (冬至)?

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According to the lunar calendar, the “winter solstice” (冬至) festival to celebrate in Singapore on 22 December, 2014.

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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 fù (復, “Returning”).

Traditional activities

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.

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. 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 lunar new year.

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new_PicsArt_1419163533012 The “tangyuan” with “pandan leaves” during cooking for fragrance

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Memories of “tangyuan” (湯圓)

As a child who grew up in Bukit Ho Swee kampong in the 1960s, I remember that my mother would celebrate “dongzhi” every year while she was still alive.

As my father had migrated from Qinmen (金門) in the 1940s, he would not forget an important day to celebrate “dongzhi” as a small boy in the village in China.

After his migration to Singapore, he insisted that my mother must follow the traditional custom and practice to prepare “tangyuan” for everyone in the family.

On the day before the “dongzhi”, my mother would buy the glutinuous rice flour dough for “tangyuan” from the market at Bukit Ho Swee.

That evening before she went to bed, she would prepare the “tangyuan”. She would dye some dough for red “tangyuan” and the remainder as white ones.

To knead and roll the dough into small flour balls into two different sizes, some red and some white. She told me that the bigger balls for adults and smaller ones for the children.

Mother prepare the plain “tangyuan” without fillings of grounded peanuts or “tau sar” which some neighbors have fanciful and creative “tangyuan” recipes.

The kneaded “tangyuan” balls would be dropped into a big pot of sugar syrup water to boil. A few “pandan” leaves were added into the water for fragrance and flavor.  The stove with charcoal fire could not be left burning overnight for fire safety reasons.

In later years, mother learn from our neighbors how to use “gula Melaka” instead of plain sugar. However, my father preferred the plain white sugar “tangyuan” soup.

On the early morning of “dongzhi” day, mother would prepare 3 small bowls of “tangyuan” on the family ancestral altar for offerings with 3 joss sticks as practice of ancestor worship.

My childhood memories of “dongzhi” was when my mother would give me some extra dough to play. It was used as plasticine clay material which I learnt for art and craft class in primary school. It was fun time for me as a child.

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3 thoughts on “Memories of Winter Solstice in the Kampong

  1. Very nice write-up about 冬至。Today, we can introduce more fun and creativity in the making of Tang Yuan. This will encourage more to participate and enjoy the festival together.

  2. My father n mother would make all of us 4 children sit on the floor and we would roll the tangyuan n place them in concentric circles on a huge enamel tray. We were then reminded to count the number of tangyuan rolled. Father would on such rare occasions use the number of tangyuan made, to buy chap ji ki from a neighbour two doors away. Those were the days.

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