As early as 2,500 years ago, around the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), China had determined the point of Winter Solstice by observing movements of the sun with a sundial. It is the earliest of the 24 seasonal division points. Winter solstice begins on December 22 or 23 according to the Gregorian calendar.
The Northern hemisphere on this day experiences the shortest daytime and longest nighttime. After the Winter Solstice, days will become longer and longer. As ancient Chinese thought, the yang will become stronger and stronger after this day, so it should be celebrated.
The Winter Solstice became a festival during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and thrived in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). The Han people regarded Winter Solstice as a “Winter Festival”, so officials would organize activities to celebrate. On this day, both officials and common people would have a day of rest. Businesses closed and traveling stopped. Relatives and friends presented each other with delicious food. In the Tang and Song dynasties, the Winter Solstice was a day to offer scarifies to Heaven and ancestors. Emperors would worship Heaven; while common people offered sacrifices to their deceased parents or other relatives. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) even had record that “Winter Solstice is as formal as the Spring Festival,” showing the great importance attached to this day.
In some parts of Northern China, people eat dumpling soup on this day; while other residents eat dumplings. They say doing so will keep them from bilzzards in the upcoming winter. But in parts of South China, families get together to have a meal made of red-bean and glutinous rice to drive away ghosts and other evil things. In other places, people also eat tangyuan, a kind of stuffed small dumpling ball made of glutinous rice flour. The Winter Solstice rice dumplings could be used as sacrifices to ancestors, or gifts for friends and relatives. The Taiwanese even keep the custom of offering nine-layer cakes to their ancestors. They make cakes in the shape of chicken, duck, tortoise, pig, cow or sheep with glutinous rice flour and steam them on different layers of a pot. These animals all signify auspiciousness in Chinese tradition. People of the same surname or family clan gather at their ancestral temples to worship their ancestors in age order. After the sacrificial ceremony, there is always a grand banquet.