In China, sharing a bowl of Laba congee with family and friends is a time-honored practice that also warms up a cold day and empty stomach. It is also a prelude to the Chinese New Year. The Laba Festival is an ancient Chinese folk festival with a lot of knowledge passed down from generation to generation and includes special customs beyond enjoying a bowl of symbolic porridge.
The name Laba Festival has a lot of meaning: the “La” in the name relates to the Chinese lunar calendar’s 12th month, while “ba” means “eight” in Mandarin. Glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds, and other goodies like dried dates or chestnuts are commonly used in laba congee.
There are a few different stories about the origins of the Laba congee, but one of the most common versions is about when Buddha Shakyamuni became a Buddhist monk. This day is one of the grand festivals of Buddhism, so many temples also distribute congee for the people around the 8th day of the lunar month to wish everyone a happy New Year full of blessings.
In ancient times, when the Lunar New Year was the end of the year, people who had nothing to do in farming went out hunting. One is to get more food to make up for the lack of food, and the second is to use the beasts to sacrifice to the ancestors and gods, pray for blessings and longevity, to avoid disasters and welcome good fortune. On the eighth day of the lunar calendar, there is the custom of eating the laba porridge. The history of having congee in China has been more than a thousand years, the earliest started in the Song Dynasty.
According to another legend, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty. The story goes that Zhu was imprisoned on a cold winter day before becoming Emperor. He found some red beans, rice, dates, and other grains beside a rat hole and cooked them together to make a porridge when he was famished. It was the eighth day of the 12th lunar month at the time. When Zhu Yuanzhang became an emperor, he chose to memorialize that memorable day in jail by naming the festival Laba Festival and the porridge he ate Laba congee.
The custom of eating congee on the 8th day of the 8th lunar month varies from region to region, but as mentioned earlier, the ingredients for congee may include ingredients such as rice, millet, glutinous rice, sorghum rice, purple rice, barley and other cereals, soybeans, red beans, mung beans, kidney beans, cowpeas and other beans, red dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, wolfberries, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, cinnamon, raisins, white fruits and other dried fruits. The congee is not only a seasonal food, but also a good health food, especially for maintaining the spleen and stomach in the cold weather.
It is a custom in the north, especially in northern China, to pickle garlic in vinegar on the eighth day of the lunar month. The garlic acquires a bamboo green color after 20 days and this Laba garlic will be served as a special celebration meal on Chinese New Year’s Day.
People in Qianxian County, Anhui Province, consume Laba tofu that has been fermented for many days. Before the festival, they expose the tofu to the sun, and after a few days, the tofu turns golden on the surface and may be utilized to prepare meals. Locals in Xining City, Qinghai Province, northwest China, consume wheat kernel rice cooked with meat and mutton.
One Han Chinese folk festival food custom is to make Laba rice on the 8th day of the lunar month. Folks use their own harvest of dried grains and fruits to make Laba rice to celebrate the fruits of a year’s hard work and pray for a bumper crop in the coming year.
A family pastime is to teach children Spring Festival nursery rhymes to the children. One such nursery Rhyme is as follows.
Xiǎo hái’ér xiǎo hái’ér nǐ bié chán,
小孩儿 小孩儿 你 别 馋，
guò le làbā jiùshì nián;
过 了 腊八 就是 年；
làbāzhōu, hē jǐ tiān,
腊八粥， 喝 几 天，
lī lī lā la èrshísān;
哩 哩 啦 啦 二十三；
èrshísān, táng guā zhān;
二十三， 糖 瓜 粘；
èrshísì , sǎo fángzi;
èrshíwǔ, dòng dòufu;
èrshíliù, qù mǎi ròu;
二十六， 去 买 肉；
èrshíqī, zǎi gōngjī;
二十七， 宰 公鸡；
èrshíbā, bǎ miàn fā;
二十八，把 面 发；
èrshíjiǔ, zhēng mántou;
二十九， 蒸 馒头；
sānshí wǎnshàng áo yī xiǔ;
三十 晚上 熬 一 宿；
chūyī, chūèr mǎn jiē zǒu.
初一、初二 满 街 走。
Don’t be greedy, little boy.
After the 8th day of the lunar month, it is the New Year.
Have the congee for several days.
The congee is eaten for several days.
On the twenty-third day, sugar gourds stick.
Twenty-four, sweeping the house.
Twenty-five, frozen bean curd.
Twenty-six, to buy meat.
Twenty-seven, slaughter the rooster.
Twenty-eight, make the flour.
Twenty-nine, steamed buns.
Chinese New Year’s Eve, stay up all night.
On the first and second days of the month, the streets are full of people.
Besides preparing a traditional meal, families around the country clean their homes thoroughly on this day. They sweep out the old in preparation for the New Year, as is customary during the Laba Festival.
Yet, for the modern Chinese person, the greatest significance of the Laba Festival is perhaps that in the middle of winter, through the snow and wind, they can go back home and have a family reunion. And as far as eating a bowl of hot Laba porridge, it comes in second to having family by your side.