As December rolls in, the holiday season carries a bit of mystic essence all around the world. In some countries, families and friends gather around to commemorate cultural holidays such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas; celebrations that help focus our purview on the importance of life, family, and memorializing miraculous life. Legends of Santa Claus, or Saint Nick, have turned the holiday into a commercial success in the early 19th century, but historians believe the original Saint Nicholas derived in Patara, modern day Turkey, as far back as 280 AD.
Otherwise known as the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas committed several acts of heroism. From saving children trapped in a perilous life to assisting the sick and poverty-stricken, he would go on to be associated with the performance of miracles. After his death during the Great Persecution of 303 AD, December 6th became the anniversary day when Christian families began to gather together for Yule to honor and recognize his life while creating warm, delicious cuisine to make it through the cold winter nights. Modern day adopted celebrations in the United States include jovial gatherings of family and friends with customary activities consisting of trimming the tree with popcorn garland and decorating gingerbread houses while enjoying hot chocolate or hot apple cider that festively recognize the season of joy and miracles.
In traditional Chinese culture, December 21st is a day to acknowledge the Dongzhi Festival, otherwise known as the Winter Solstice Festival. This tradition was born as early as 206 BC-220 AD during the Han Dynasty and remained a cultural staple throughout the Tang and Song dynasties.
Regional observances and delicatessens still thrive today. In northern China, those celebrating together make dumplings based on a lasting legend referencing Zhang Zhongjing of the Han Dynasty, who supposedly saw his constituents suffering from the cold and asked his apprentices to make dumplings to share and help keep their souls warm.
Another popular recipe in southern China exists to celebrate the Dongzhi festival: rice cakes! Its traditional name, dōngzhìtuán, signifies reunion and is eaten among family and friends and shared with others as a blessing. Occasionally, deep-rooted celebrators remember when the festival would mean that those sharing the same surname would congregate at their ancestral temples to connect and worship together. After the ceremony, families would gather for a communal dinner, celebrating the longest night of the year with warm food and good company.
Today, for those living abroad who practice a more modern-day approach to the Dongzhi Festival, families make varying sizes of glutinous rice balls known as “tangyuan.” In accordance with the legend, all family members receive at least a single large tangyuan, as well as smaller sized ones. It is then chased with rice wine to keep the tradition of warmth alive; passed down from one family member to the next from ancient Chinese folklore.
Though our world may look different this year, remembering our ancestral heritage can unite and bond generations – virtually or physically. In this ever-evolving reality, these customs inspire us to re-establish family traditions and celebrate the season with those around us by honoring our past and envisioning our future.