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Dongji – Winter Solstice

Dongji – Winter Solstice

Traditionally, the lunar calendar was divided into 24 ‘turning points’ (jeolgi 절기) in accordance with the motion of the Sun – solar terms, each lasting about 15 days. Within each season there were 6 solar terms (divisions) representing the season’s progression. The focal point of each season was the two solstices and two equinoxes.  Traditional minded farmers and fishers still rely on these to guide their work. The winter solstice was known as Dongji ((동지) .

Dongji usually falls around mid December on the solar calendar and is the longest night of the year. This marks a turning point where days gradually start to become longer. In ancient Korea, people referred to Dongji as 작은 설 (a small New Year’s day) and used to have a big celebration on the day. In the Royal court, it was regarded as one of the major festivities and the King and Crown Prince provided a banquet for their subjects.

A government office named  Gwan-sang-gam (관상감), which took charge of astronomy, geography and meteorological observation, made calendars every year and dedicated them to the Royal court. The Royal court handed out the calendars, stamped with a royal seal (Dong-mun-ji-bo 동문지보),  to officials. Given that Korean was an agrarian-based culture, a variety of details about seasonal changes was included in the calendars and as such, the calendars were much prized. The custom of giving calendars as gifts during the year-end and New Year's season continues in present day Korea.

People believed that they could ward off evil spirits by putting  a Dongji-bujeok (동지부적) -  a paper with a Chinese character ‘蛇 (Snake)’ written on it - upside down on the wall. They also believed that if the weather was unusually warm on Dongji, many people would die in the coming year of  infectious diseases; but if it was a very cold, snowy day,  the coming year’s harvest would be a good one. 

Koreans usually prepared Red Bean Porridge (Patjuk 팥죽) on this day. Bowls were placed in every part of the house  - each room, the kitchen, barn, etc. – to expel evil spirits and offered to the family shrine to comfort the heavenly gods. The red color of the beans was thought to contain yang energy and therefore to be effective in driving away evil. For this same reason, people in certain areas would spray patjuk on walls and doors. 

The exception to eating patjuk occurred if Dongji fell on 10 December in the lunar calendar, because to do so on that date was believed to be harmful for children.

Korean traditionally at Patbab (rice with red bean), Patddeok (red bean rice cake) along with Patjuk on both happy occasions and when misfortune occurs.  To this day, the custom continues. May people still hold a ceremony called Go-sa, offering red bean rice cake to wish for good luck, prosperity and safety,  before beginning something important such as starting a new business or construction work. It is from a belief that foods made with red beans grant your wishes. On a practical level, in terms of oriental medicine, red beans are great for red skin, fever or body aches, and they help relieve diarrhea, mastitis, beriberi, abscess, colic pain and some other illnesses.


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Last Updated on 2012-07-27

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