Dongji (Kor. 동지, Chin. 冬至, lit. peak of winter) is the twenty-second solar term and marks the winter solstice, the time of the year when night is longest and the day is shortest. On Dongji, the sun crosses the Equator down to the Tropic of Capricorn at a latitude of 23.5° south (ecliptic longitude 270°). On the Gregorian calendar, this term usually falls on December twenty-second or twenty-third. When the Gregorian date of the winter solstice coincides with the first day of the eleventh lunar month, this is known as Aedongji (Kor. 애동지, lit. early Dongji). If it occurs in the middle of the eleventh lunar month, it is referred to as Jungdongji (Kor. 중동지, Chin. 中冬至, lit. Middle Dongji). Finally, when the Gregorian date of the winter solstice is a day late in the eleventh lunar month, it is known as Nodongji (Kor. 노동지, Chin. 老冬至, lit. Late Dongji). Such simultaneous interactions of the solar and lunar calendars were a major characteristic of Korean seasonal customs.
Common people often referred to Dongji as Ase (Kor. 아세, Chin. 亞歲) and Jageun Seol (Kor. 작은 설), or Little Lunar New Year, because it was perceived as the day of the sun’s resurrection. The day was equaled in importance with the Lunar New Year. Koreans of the past considered themselves a year older after Dongji and not on New Year’s Day as it is customary today. Old sayings such as “One turns a year older on Dongji” or “Without eating Dongji red bean porridge, one cannot turn a year older, ” attest to this belief. The cold weather and the long night of the winter solstice led to its association with the mating of tigers, providing this solar term with another nickname, Horangi Jangga Ganeun Nal (Kor. 호랑이 장가가는 날, lit. Tigers’ Wedding Day). In the royal court, Dongji was considered one of the two most important seasonal holidays along with the Lunar New Year. A banquet called hoeryeyeon (Kor. 회례연, Chin. 會禮宴) was held and attended by the Crown Prince and the entire court. The king dispatched to China the dongjisa (Kor. 동지사, Chin. 冬至使, lit. Dongji envoys) who carried tributary gifts to the imperial court. Local administrators also sent congratulatory letters to the king.
Historically, when Korea was a predominantly agricultural country, calendars specifying solar and lunar terms and seasonal holidays were indispensable for keeping farming activities in line with seasonal changes. People usually gave each other a calendar for the new year as a gift around the winter solstice; this custom has endured in Korea to the present day. Another gift item frequently exchanged around this time was quilted socks; this practice was referred to as dongji heonmal (Kor. 동지헌말, Chin. 冬至獻襪). In the royal court, herring were offered on the altar of the royal ancestral shrine; a similar custom took place in the homes of high government officials.
Dongji was also associated with the custom of posting amulet sheets in order to ward off harmful spirits. Such amulets, or dongji bujeok (Kor. 동지부적, Chin. 冬至符籍), contained the Sino-Korean character meaning “snake, ” and were posted upside down.
When the temperature drops below 0° C on this day, as frequently happens, the surface of ponds would become covered with ice sheets, giving the appearance of a dry field just after plowing. This phenomenon is called yonggari (Kor. 용갈이, Chin. 龍耕, lit. dragon plowing). If the weather was warm on Dongji, it was regarded as a bad omen presaging the outbreak of diseases. A cold winter solstice with heavy snow signified great crop yields. According to another popular belief, chilly weather on this day meant that there would be fewer insects in the fields and more tigers in the woods.
The most popular dish on Dongji is red bean porridge, prepared by simmering red beans in water. When the mixture acquires a thick porridge-like consistency, small dough balls of glutinous rice are added to it. These rice balls are known as saealsim (Kor. 새알심, lit. bird egg balls) because they are the size of a bird’s egg. The first bowl of the porridge is usually offered on the altar in the ancestral shrine in a ceremony known as dongji gosa (Kor. 동지고사, Chin. 冬至告祀, lit. Dongji rite). Bowls of red bean porridge are also put in all rooms and other important parts of the house, such as the platform for jars of fermented foods, and the barn. While the porridge presented in the ancestral shrine is intended as an offering to the gods, placing bowls in the house serves to exorcise maleficent spirits. The red color of the beans, a positive color in fengshui, is believed to have the power to dispel negative spirits. Only after the spirits of the household are served, can the family enjoy the dish themselves. In a year when the winter solstice was Aedongji (i. e. falling on a day early in the eleventh lunar month), people did not prepare red bean porridge since doing so was considered harmful for young children. Families who had lost a member to a sudden illness also abstained from cooking porridge on Dongji.
There are certain regional variations in the custom of serving red bean porridge. In Gyeonggi Province, for example, families first perform a ceremony in the shrine during which they offer the porridge to the ancestral spirits. They then place bowls in the rooms and granary, and finally help themselves. In Gyeongsang Province, a pine branch is dipped in the porridge and used to sprinkle the exterior walls of the house and the yard, and sometimes the entrance point of the village in order to bar the entry of miscellaneous spirits. In Gangwon Province, housewives cook dough balls for the porridge with glutinous rice or kaoliang grain. One has to eat these balls called ongsim (Kor. 옹심) in the quantity corresponding to one’s age. In this same region hired hands are served nine bowls of porridge and required to carry nine loads of firewood.