Each day feels more valuable at the end of the year, but there’s a day that’s particularly special. It is Dongji (冬至), which means “winter has arrived at its prime.” It is about 10 days to the end of the month. The long winter nights will become shorter little by little after this day. This must also have been a special day for the traditional people. 『Dongguk Sesigi』 states that Dongji was known as “Ase (亞歲, small New Year’s Day).” The king bestowed the new calendars for the coming year with the royal seal on this day, and the government officials distributed them to their relatives. “Haseondongryeok (夏扇冬曆)” is an expression that originated from this. It means that a fan is given in summer (Dano), and a calendar in winter (Dongji). Haseondongryeok is used to describe the best gift for the season. The king’s calendars that spread across the kingdom likely reflected the people’s fervent wish for good harvests and prosperity. The most popular custom of Dongji is eating patjuk (red bean porridge). In the past, people believed that the red color of patjuk could drive away bad spirits. They made patjuk and placed fresh patjuk here and there in their homes to protect them from the bad spirits throughout the longest night of the year.
When the porridge had cooled, they shared it with the whole family. They believed that they would age a year only if they ate one more sweet rice ball in the porridge than their current age. Putjuk for Dongji was a kind of sorcery for protection, and a folk custom for counting one’s age. Japan has a custom of eating red bean porridge and red bean bread on Dongji. On the other hand, China has a long tradition of making jiaozi dumplings on Dongji. After Dongji, the Japanese exchange year-end gifts (oseibo) carefully wrapped in white paper and send season’s greetings to their acquaintances. In China, the month of December is called “Napwol (臘月)” because ancient China celebrated Napje (臘祭) from December 8 to January 15 of the lunar calendar. China still considers December 8 an important day and calls the day “Napparil (臘八日).” The last day of the year is called “Jeseok (除夕)” or “Jeya (除夜).” Traditional people visited their relatives or teachers on that day for the “bow.” The December section of 『Dongguk Sesigi』 includes the following description: “The lines of lanterns on the streets were lit from early evening to late at night.” The commoners lit up their rooms and kitchens with oil lamps and stayed up until the new sun of the New Year rose. This custom is known as “Suse (守歲).” This custom required one to greet the New Year with a clear spirit under a bright light. It was a unique tradition of Korea that is hardly found anywhere else.