Although the winter solstice isn’t a public holiday in Hong Kong (it is in Macau), it’s a major festival celebrated locally, as well as by Chinese communities all over the world, even in Southeast Asia where winter is, quite literally, a foreign concept experienced only during overseas holidays, seen on screens and pictures, or imagined in books. The winter solstice, dongzhi in Mandarin and dung zi in Cantonese, is the day with the shortest period of daylight. This year it falls on December 21 in the northern hemisphere; the southern hemisphere already had its winter solstice on 21 June. We don’t know how long it took before ancient peoples finally caught on to the fact that one particular day in the cold months had the shortest day and longest night, and that this phenomenon repeated year after year. But by the Zhou period (circa 1100BC-256BC), the Chinese were already observing the winter solstice as a state holiday. A passage on social and religious institutions in Rites of Zhou , a work on bureaucracy and organisational theory that appeared in the second century BC, instructs state officials to “convene the deities in the heavens and the spirits of the dead on the day of the winter solstice” so as to offer them sacrifices. In subsequent dynasties until modern times, state observances of the winter solstice always involved making religious offerings, sometimes by the emperor in person. The emperor would preside over a special celebration at the palace, where all his officials and foreign envoys, donning their most formal court dresses, would offer him their felicitations. From the emperor to the lowliest government clerk, everyone took a day off from work. For ordinary people in China, the winter solstice was, and still is, an important day of the year. The ways of celebrating differ across time and geography, but they always involve a religious element, such as prayers and offerings to either deities or one’s ancestors, and the gathering of family members for a special meal. You could lose a leg breaking environmental laws in ancient China In the region south of the Yangtze River, a popular festival food is tangyuan ( tong yuen in Cantonese), which are spherical lumps made from glutinous flour and served in some kind of savoury broth or light syrup. The spherical tangyuan , which can be stuffed with meat, some kind of sweet paste, or without filling, symbolises fullness and completeness. In Hong Kong, tangyuan is almost always served as a dessert; the most popular fillings are sesame, red bean or peanut paste. The clear syrup is sometimes flavoured with ginger or osmanthus flowers. Chinese people in Singapore and Malaysia, whose ancestors mostly originated from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, also enjoy tangyuan as a dessert in a light syrup. At some point in time, whether by experimentation or by accident, it was discovered that the leaves of the Pandanus amaryllifolius , which are in plentiful supply in Southeast Asia, infused the syrup with a wonderful fragrance. That’s how I like my tangyuan , with the distinctive scent of pandan leaves, and that was what I missed most when I was in Hong Kong, away from home. Tangyuan is now available all year round in pre-frozen packs, but many Chinese people will still make special servings of it on the day of the winter solstice, even in the sweltering tropics, where the season-specific festival is just a cultural memory from another place and time. In Hong Kong, most workplaces will close early even when it’s not an official public holiday, to allow employees to go home for an evening meal with the whole family. No prizes for guessing what’s for dessert.