Meaning of Dongji to Koreans
Today (22 December 2015) is Dongji (동지 – Winter Solstice) – this is the day with the longest night-time (or the shortest day-time) within the year. It usually falls on 22 or 23 December of the Gregorian (or the Western) calendar. After Dongji, the day-time gradually becomes longer signalling the coming of the spring. So, in the past, people considered Dongji as the “little lunar new year”, and considered themselves one year older after Dongji (vs. nowadays people consider themselves one year older on New Year’s day). In the past, people predicted the coming year’s agricultural conditions based on the weather on Dongji – warm weather was considered as a bad omen meaning outbreak of diseases whereas cold weather with heavy snow meant great crop yields.
Dongji’s Signature Dish
On Dongji, Koreans make and eat porridge made from red bean called “patjuk” (팥죽), which is thick and sweet. Small white round balls of glutinous rice called “saealsim” (새알심 – literally means “bird’s egg” since they look like bird’s eggs) are also added to the porridge. The Koreans believe that the red beans can ward off evil spirits, bad luck and illness because the red colour has long been considered as a symbol of positive energy which can drive away negative forces. On the other hand, the glutinous rice balls signify new life, and it is said that one should eat the same number of glutinous rice balls as one’s age to symbolize a successful passing of the year. Of course, nowadays, people just eat as many glutinous rice balls as they want.
According to the Korean tradition, the first bowl of patjuk is offered to the ancestors on the altar and bowls of patjuk are then put in various parts of the house including barns, rooms, water wells and the platform for jars of fermented food. Sometimes, people may spinkle patjuk on the gate and outer walls of the house to drive away evil spirits and bad luck.
If you want to make your own patjuk, you can refer to this patjuk recipe. If you just want to eat and save yourself the trouble to make patjuk, you can easily buy one at a Korean restaurant selling porridge in South Korea.
As Dongji is considered the “little lunar new year” by the Koreans, people may give a calendar for the new year to each other as a gift around Dongji. Another gift which may be exchanged around Dongji is quilted socks. According to the tradition, women sew quilted socks for their parent-in-laws and female family members such as grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters-in-law. Through this custom, people express hope for good crop yields and abundant offspring.
On this Dongji day, let’s celebrate it by eating a bowl of sweet and warm patjuk! Have a great Dongji! 🙂
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Jos Tan, “Red bean porridge (patjuk) during Winter Solstice“, The Korea Blog, 2013-12-22
Korea Tourism Organization, “Warm-up this winter with some tasty Korean treats“, 2013-11-08
이해영, 김은영, 신경선, 주은경, 이정란, 이현의, 《생활 속 한국 문화77》, 서울: 랭기지플러스<한글파크>, 2011, 132-133쪽
Jingi Cheon (ed.), Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs, Seoul: The National Folk Museum of Korea, 2010-06-30, pp. 270-275