In the olden days the Chinese people celebrate Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice Festival) much like Chinese Lunar New Year by visiting relatives and friends. There is the usual feasting and businesses will take a break on that day. On this day, people will gather around to eat “tang yuan” (glutinous floor balls) which is symbolic of family unity and harmony.
But just what is the winter solstice?
A solstice is an astronomical term used to describe the day of the year when the sun is the greatest distance from our equator. There are two solstices, therefore, one in the summer and one in the winter each causing either the longest or shortest day of the year. The times of these vary, however, depending on which hemisphere you are discussing.
Solstices are caused by the earth being tilted the farthest from the Sun for that hemisphere. While the earth orbits the sun, it meanwhile spins on its axis. This tilt causes one hemisphere to be closer to the sun, creating summer, while the other hemisphere is tilted further way, creating winter.
The term solstice actually come form the Latin word solstitium. They derived the word solstitium from sol meaning the sun and stitium, which means to stop. During the solstice, the sun appears to do exactly that. It reaches almost the same elevation everyday at noon for the several days before and after the solstice.
The winter solstice for the northern hemisphere occurs on one of two dates: December 21st or 22nd every year and the sun will be shinning directly over the tropic of Capricorn. June 20th or 21st is the winter solstice for the southern hemisphere, which occurs when the sun is shinning directly over the tropic of Cancer.
The winter solstice always marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year. Most cultures consider this day to be the middle of winter in their calendars. The date of solstice has surprisingly only moved by one day in the past three thousand years.
Many ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice as a time of new birth because the sun seemed reborn as the days began to stay lighter longer. This was often seen as a positive change and a purge of evil from the world as the darkness (evil) was defeated by light (good.)
Today, festivals of light are still celebrated by some cultures. In addition to the Chinese Dong Zhi festival, the Germanic cultures celebrate Yule and Hindus celebrate Diwali, a festival of light.