Life can't go on until you've had your porridge

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Life can't go on until you've had your porridge

Go to any neighborhood market now and you'll find three things that mark the season -- red beans, sticky rice and calendars. Dongji (the winter solstice), which falls this Sunday, is the day for Koreans to have their patjuk, or red-bean porridge with sticky rice balls, for the year. Also, by the lunar calendar, there is always about one month left in the year when dongji comes, so it's the time to give out calendars for next year.

Literally meaning "the peak of winter" in Chinese characters, dongji is also called "the petite New Year's Day." It has long been the day to get ready for a whole new year by putting an end to worn-out things. Following tradition, people hang amulets to ward off calamities and shoo away evil over the coming year.

On dongji, the longest night of the year, you are supposed to eat the special porridge with dongchimi, or winter watery kimchi made from radishes.

Although Asians have long believed that the color red drives out evil spirits, the practice of eating red-bean porridge on dongji dates to a legend from China's Jin Dynasty era (265-420). A man named Gonggong had a son who was nothing but a nuisance. The son died on dongji and became a ghost spreading smallpox. The father remembered that the son hated red beans, so he made a red-bean porridge and spread it around the village's gates and yards.

The tradition became more systemized over time. Up until the Joseon Dynasty, Koreans conducted their dongji rituals in a certain order. First they presented a bowl of porridge to the ancestral shrine, then they placed other bowls around the house, in rooms and on floors. Then, using spoons, they scattered the porridge outside, on front gates, yards and walls. Finally, what was left was served to the family and eaten. Each person would get in his porridge the number of sticky rice balls equal to his age. There is even a saying that you are not truly a year older until you've had your porridge.

The porridge was thought unfit for the king, however. Instead, around dongji, court doctors and scholars would produce a special concoction of cowhide boiled down to a thick pulp, then spiced with ginger, pepper, honey and other assorted herbs. This royal dish is no longer made, but used to be considered a special delicacy.

The royal court would hold a big feast to celebrate dongji. Attending would be the king and his family members and other guests. Around dongji the king would publish calendars, with a royal seal, and then distribute them to government officials.

This led to another saying. Ahead of summer, the tradition was to exchange fans. So people put the two practices together and thus was born the saying "ha-seon-dong-ryeok," which in Chinese characters means "fans in summer and calendars in winter."

Speaking of calendars, if you want to ensure good luck for next year, eat your porridge on Sunday.

by Chun Su-jin

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