As one of the 24 solar terms, the beginning of winter comes when the “handle” of the Big Dipper points towards the northwest, and the sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 225°. It begins between the 7th and 8th of November of the Gregorian calendar and marks the starting of winter. It was one of the four seasons and eight solar terms in ancient China when people would hold ritual activities. Thus classical Chinese from many regions also celebrated the first term of winter as an important festival.
Celebrating the arrival of winter
The four dates signifying the start of each season around a year were called “四立” (four beginnings), and Chinese people valued the Start of winter so much. As the saying of “harvesting in autumn and storing harvests in winter’ goes, people enjoyed fruits and took rests in winter to prepare for a bumper crop next year. In this significant season, the ancient Chinese people had the customs to worship ancestors, hold feasts, and divine of the fortune of next year. Specifically, people would worship their ancestors with seasonable foods to perform their obligations and duties as descendants and pray for the Heaven for another year of good harvest; meanwhile, peasants would drink and rest after a year of diligent work.
Take tonic food in winter
The Start of winter officially announces the arrival of winter, featuring the withering of grass and trees, dormancy of insects, and halt of activities of all things. Although human beings don’t need dormancy, they still take nourishments at the arrival of winter. The proverb of “taking dietary supplementation at the start of winter” serves as the best metaphor. Since the cold season comes, people would like to take in food to dispel coldness. In South China, they usually eat some foods which can nourish yin and yang, or those with high calories, such as chicken, ducks, and fish; some of them would even cook food with some Chinese medicinal herbs to increase the nourishing effect.
The central Fujian Province call this solar term “jiao dong” (winter comes after autumn), and most families there will make soups with herb roots. They usually chop the roots of Angelica dahurica, Chinese sumac, aromatic litsea, diren (Melastoma dodecandrum Lour.), and others alike into pieces to braise soup with chicken, duck, rabbit, pork shank or pork tripe. Despite a wide variety of recipes for the herb roots, the functions are similar—toning kidneys, invigorating the stomach, and strengthening the waist and knees. In Chaozhou and Shantou of Guangdong Province, people eat sugar canes and fried rice at the start of winter. Sugar cane is one of tonic food in winter, and people believe “taking sugar cane in winter makes toothache away.” It means that at this solar term, sugar cane has matured and will not cause ulcers but nourish your body and protect your teeth.
At the start of winter, folks in North China eat ear-shaped dumplings, thinking that by eating such delicacy, their ears will not feel freezing. It’s better to add chopped Chinese cabbage in the stuffing and enjoy the dumplings with vinegar and smashed garlic. Why people like eating dumplings at the Start of winter? Because Chinese people place great emphasis on the 24 solar terms since agriculture constitutes the pillar of its economy. The solar terms are used to govern agricultural arrangements in China of both ancient and modern time. Thus in the season to enjoy the excellent harvest of autumn, people choose to reward themselves with delicious food, including dumplings.