History of Winter Clothing Festival
Winter Clothing Festival (寒衣节, hányī jié), also known as "十月朝, shí yuè cháo," "祭祖节, jì zǔ jié," "冥阴节, míng yīn jié," "鬼头日, guǐ tóu rì," and "秋祭, qiū jì" is a holiday that occurred on October 1st on the lunar calendar. It emerged in the Zhou Dynasty but does not have any physical written records of it until the Song Dynasty.
Winter Clothing Festival goes along with "Qīngmíng Festival (清明节)" and "Zhōng yuán Festival (中元节)" and get categorized as the top three "Ghost Festivals" in China. The reason is because the three festivals all focused on the living paying their respects and providing their sacrifice offerings to their ancestors on that day.
While Winter Clothing Festival Is grouped under the top three Ghost Festival, it is the festival among the others that have the least presence. The other two have a strong focus on people going grave sweeping or doing something unique for this festival, but Winter Clothing Festival it’s more about people expressing the idea of; "The weather is cooling. Winter is approaching soon. We need to start sewing up warm and thick outfits for winter."
If you look at China’s cultural belief development, you will see that they have filial piety toward elderly and seniors deeply ingrained into their flesh. This “filiality” does not only apply to the living. It also applies to the dead with the phrase "逝者如生, shì zhě rú shēng," meaning "the departed are still with us." In other words, to "treat the dead the same way as if they are still living." So as they make outfits for the living, they will also carry along by making outfits for their ancestors. It not only shows China’s concept of filial piety, but also expresses how much they miss their ancestors and sends the message of them taking care of themselves in the underworld for the upcoming winter with the new outfits they send.
In ancient China, October 1st, is when the weather starts cooling as a shift from summer to autumn. Since there is no advanced technologies or large amounts of fresh food stocked for everyone to safely pass through winter, the cold weather itself is a fatal impact to many families and will take many lives before spring approaches. So besides the custom of making winter outfits, it is also a signal for families who have yet to stock up on foods, firewood, or outfits to start doing so before it is too late.
Customs of Winter Clothing Festival
Winter Clothing Festival emerged in the Zhou Dynasty, but there were no specific customs representing these festivals until the Song Dynasty when emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) took the lead and distributed cotton-made winter clothes to court officials to support them through winter. This action is known as "授衣, shòu yī," "giving clothes," which adds on to another names to called this festival by; 授衣节, shòu yī jié. With the emperor taking the lead, commoners started following this trend of making and gifting winter outfits. This eventually made emperor Qin’s decree for October month developed into a real custom for this festival.
This festival is popularly known in the North of China as "Ritual Festival." During the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties, there are no stable dates for this festival. The earliest date would be in the month of September. It wasn’t until the Song period that the date got shifted to October.
The clothes gifting started with being merely just a trend. It slowly became incorporated into the customs representing Winter Clothing Festivals and lasted till now until it faded.
As of most recent customs, on the day of the festival, people will be going to the ancestor’s grave and provide offerings to them. Besides the usual food, paper money, it will also include outfits such as clothes, hats, boots, any that can help block cold wind when winter comes. Families will also burn up some paper money for the graves next to the one they are offering to, specifically the lone graves in case the member of that grave does not have an offering and ends up stealing clothing from their ancestors. A few of the offerings include dumplings, steamed buns, fruits, incense, and candles.
Besides burning clothes, the men of the household and the children will also have to put on winter clothes no matter if the weather is cold enough for it just to represent a good meaning (图吉利, tú jílì).
Quilts and winter clothings will also be put outside as a way of "welcoming winter." Families with a stove in their house will also be cleaning out their chimney and lighting the stove with the belief that their ancestors will bless their home to be kept warm in winter. Families will also eat food that will warm up their body from within such as dumplings, buckwheat noodles, rice cakes and red beans. Types of food eaten vary depending on the region of China it is.
Yin and Yang Beliefs In Ancient China
Since the festival is categorized as one of the top three "Ghost Festivals," there will be a strong connection to the belief of ghosts and the balance of yin and yang energy.
There is the saying; "清明烧钱, 寒衣送后." "早清明, 晚寒衣." Meaning; "Qīngmíng burns money first, sends winter clothes after." "Qīngmíng morning and winter clothes night."
What comes first and second is based on the belief of yin and yang energy between living and dead along with the shifting of temperature.
"Qīngmíng burns money first, sends winter clothes after." This sentence simply means the date of the festival occurring on the calendar. Looking on the calendar, Qīngmíng occurs on the 4th, 5th, or 6th of April in a year. As the name of Qīngmíng in Chinese, it means "bright and clear." It described the shift from winter to spring months along with the weather warming up. The day will last longer than night and will slowly increase as the day passes. In other word, it means that yang (day) is becoming stronger than yin (night).
Since yang energy is stronger than yin on Qīngmíng, families will be visiting their ancestor’s grave to worship and provide offerings without fearing that there will be too much yin negatively impacting their body. Families will go on a sunny morning, when the sun is about to but yet to rise and before noon, when the sun is highest on the sky leaning West.
If the sun rises already then there will be too much yang and will only end up harming the ancestors. Or if a person went to the grave at night where the yin energy is strongest. It will only unbalance a living’s yang.
Following the belief of yin and yang, customs of Qīngmíng are done in the morning before noon. But for the Winter Clothing Festival, the customs are done at night.
There is the belief that the gate to the underworld is open after the Winter Clothing Festival and closed before Qīngmíng. So if families want to send paper money to their ancestors, they have to do it in the morning of Qīngmíng before noon where the yang will only increase as day passes. You can assume that on Qīngmíng, when it turns noon, the gate to the underworld is closed until the next "Ghost Festivals." So if families want to send more stuff, ancestors will have to wait till the next ghost holiday which is Ghost Festival (中元节, zhōng yuán jié) or Winter Clothing Festival.
On Ghost Festival, the gate of the underworld will be wide open, and ghosts will be able to roam back to earth. So this is also an opportunity to send offerings to ancestors and they will be able to receive it. For Ghost Festival there is the known phrase "七月半, 鬼门开." Meaning "July 15th on (lunar calendar), ghost gates open." The gate will be open on the first day of the seventh month of the lunar cycle and last till the 30th day of the month.
At the Winter Clothing Festival, autumn months are midway. The temperature is slowly cooling and the night is becoming longer than day. Yin energy will slowly increase and become stronger than yang. The underworld passage will be open, and ancestors will be able to come back and receive their winter outfits.
The belief is families go to ancestor’s graves in Qīngmíng to give offerings but don’t go to the Winter Clothing Festival. Simply due to the yin being stronger than yang. Families will simply burn clothes, offerings, and money and have their ancestors come and pick it up themselves.
With the cold air (yin) and night (yin) combined, the yin energy is strongest at night during the Winter Clothing Festival. So following Qīngmíng’s customs early in the morning, people will be performing the customs of the Winter Clothing Festival either at dusk or night.