Dongji aka The Winter Solstice Korean Style
Like many holidays, unofficial or not, in Korea, there’s something that should be eaten on the upcoming winter solstice, or Dongji (동지), so get your spoons ready!
The winter solstice is celebrated on the day of the year with the shortest daylight hours and the longest night and it usually falls on or around December 22nd each year. While there is New Year’s Day on January 1st in the west and the Lunar New Year’s Day in January or February depending on the lunar calendar in the east, Dongji can also be referred to as a New Year’s… make that Little New Year’s Day. Get it? Short day? Little? It’s a good way to remembered it anyway. From Dongji, the days start to get longer leading up to spring which is often seen as the new year in many places as that’s when things start to bloom, babies are born and all of the new things of the year pop up, out and whichever other way. This was also the day when, historically, the kings of Korea would hand out the calendar for the upcoming year. It’s no wonder that you get a free calendar from your local pizza shop, ramen shop, hat store and every other store in between in December, now is it?
While Dongji isn’t anything we’ll be getting a holiday off from work for, in the past families gathered to perform the ancestral rites before eating their patjuk (팥죽) and also placing a bowl of the dark lumpy dish in each room of the house to ward off evil spirits. While most families don’t do this anymore, many people still follow the custom of eating a big heaping bowl of patjuk, or red bean porridge, to mark the coming of the new year. Interestingly, there’s a Korean proverb that says, “eat patjuk and you eat a year” which in essence means you grow a year older when you eat this dish. This is also said when you eat rice cake soup on the Lunar New Year so, you get one year older on December 22nd and then you get another year older in January in Korea. It’s truly amazing how fast Koreans age and yet they manage to look oh so young.
Little white dumplings will float in a bowl of mashed and boiled red beans if you head out to order the meal. Don’t let the appearance ward you off though. While my husband adds salt to his, I prefer sugar. Either is acceptable and can really make the dish rather delicious. The little white dumplings are known as saealshim, or bird eggs due to their little round cute egg-like shapes.
Just as a dream will tell a woman that she’s pregnant or what sex the baby will be in Korea, Dongji has its own future to tell. If the weather is unseasonably warm on Dongji, it is said that the coming year will bring disease and misfortune. If the weather is cold and snowing, then the new year will bring a good harvest and good luck.
Clearly, everyone will be hoping for frigid weather on December 22nd, right? Maybe not, but if it is and you want to keep warm, head out to find some patjuk for dinner.
*Images in this post were taken from Korean Bapsang where you can also find a delicious recipe for this dish.