Thoughts on winter solstice
A couple of weeks ago, the Salvation Army Korea announced that a 110 million won check, equivalent to some $97,000, was donated to its Red Kettle fundraising campaign in central Seoul by an anonymous donor.
It was the largest single donation received through the street collection campaign in its 83-year history. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettles appear on the streets during the Christmas season, inspiring passerby donations and reminding us of the joy of giving.
Christmas falls on the 25th day of December. It is the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, some scholars, including Isaac Newton, have suggested that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the Roman winter solstice upon the establishment of the Julian calendar. In the modern Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice usually occurs between Dec. 21 and 23 each year in the Northern Hemisphere.
Worldwide, interpretation of the winter solstice has varied from culture to culture. In East Asia, ``winter solstice” is translated into ``the extreme of winter” as the sunshine is at its weakest and daylight at its shortest. While Westerners celebrate it with religious connotations, Koreans along with neighboring Asian nations celebrate this day with family members while preparing special dishes such as Chinese ``round balls in soup” with sweet bean paste filling and Korean ``red bean porridge” with rice dumplings, called patjuk.
The tradition of eating patjuk is attributed to superstitious beliefs as well as economic hardships. Traditionally, Koreans believe the color red represents positive energy. It was believed that bad luck and epidemic diseases coming from negative evil spirits would be prevented by cooking and eating patjuk. By customarily scattering the porridge around the house, Koreans wished to chase away these evil spirits.
Patjuk was commonly eaten during the winter season when Korean families suffered grain shortage. Rice is the staple of the Korean diet and red beans were a superb substitute. A handful of red beans with a speck of rice boiled in water made a good meal. It required no side dishes. Eating patjuk was a way of conserving grains during the harsh dark winter season.
Nonetheless, the seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. It is the day when the days start becoming longer than nights again. The date of ``the extreme of winter” is expected to usher in brighter, longer days. In this economically tumultuous year-end, it is also expected to provide a flash of hope to the ailing world economy.
The recession in America has become part of a worldwide economic depression. Currently, the European fiscal crisis is deepening. The leaders of eurozone nations are exerting every effort to deal with the crisis, but no clear breakthrough is visible yet. The story of the West’s affluence seems to be an old episode. An economic decline of the industrialized West seems inevitable.
At this point, it would be worthy to reexamine the causes and phenomena of the Great Depression during the early 20th century. The Great Depression brought forth a number of economic phenomena including deflation in asset and commodity prices, dramatic drops in demand and credit and disruption of trade, ultimately resulting in widespread unemployment.
Consumers’ marginal buying of shares on credit has led to enormous volatility in the stock markets. Overproduction of goods for reckless and wasteful consumption has resulted in the plummeting prices of goods. The debt crisis in rural areas has repeated every year, worsening the price fluctuation of farm produce. Poor banking practices have evaporated assets of many bank account holders. Many have expressed unhappiness over income inequality.
These current phenomena are similar to those found during the period of the Great Depression. Eurozone nations have been experiencing a similar situation. The real estate bubbles, growing trade deficits and excessive spending on welfare programs, all combined, brought about government deficits in many eurozone nations. Accordingly, emerging countries are impacted by the ripple effects of the European crisis. Korea’s economic outlook is not rosy either. Korea has no choice but to brace for tough economic conditions such as a slowdown in exports to key markets and plunging domestic real estate prices.
There is an expression, ``Excess is just as bad as deficiency.” It is written in the Analects of Confucius. A prolonged and excessive consumption of goods may lead to inevitable environmental degradation and the eventual loss of resource bases. The current European financial predicament, largely attributed to the excessiveness in economic practice, should be taken as a warning to us; ``Going too far is as bad as not going far enough.”
The writer is a chair professor of the Catholic University of Daegu. He previously headed the Foreign News Division of the Korea Overseas Information Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.