Laba Festival or Laba Rice Porridge Festival, which got a fixed time on the 8th day of 12th month in the Southern and Northern dynasties, is a traditional festival of Han nationality. It is also regarded as the prelude to the Spring Festival. The major customs of Laba Festival are ancestor worship, Laba congee eating and Laba garlic making. The Laba Festival this year falls on January 8, 2014 (that’s today!).
In China, the 12th month of lunar year is called “la month”, and the 8th day of the 12th lunar month is thus called Laba (eight reads ba in Chinese). It is recorded that Laba Festival originated from the ancient Chinese La Ceremony. The Chinese people have always paid great attention to agriculture ever since the ancient time. Whenever there was a bumper harvest, the ancient people would regard it as the result of all gods’ bless, so they would get together to hold a grand ceremony to celebrate the harvest, which was called a “La Ceremony”. After the ceremony people would treat their fellow villagers with the congee that were made of their newly gained broomcorn millet. The La Ceremony later developed into a festival mainly to commemorate the ancestors.
After the spread of Buddhism into China, people made up another story saying that the 8th day of the 12th lunar month was the day when Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, became a Buddha. Legend has it that after Sakyamuni left secular life to become a monk, he meditated so deeply that he often forgot to eat. Once, when he was close to dying of starvation, a shepherdess fed him with rice and beans, enabling him to continue meditating and attain enlightenment on the 8th day of 12th lunar month. To commemorate this event, the Buddhists began to make congee with rice and dried fruits to make offerings to the Buddha on that day every year, and the congee was called “Laba congee”.
Eating Laba congee is a distinctive and old tradition of the Laba Festival, which has a history of over 1,000 years ever since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). At that time, the central and local governments as well as the monasteries would make Laba congee on every Laba Festival. This custom became particularly popular in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). The emperor, empress and princes would bestow Laba congee to their officials and servants and send rice and fruits to the monasteries. The large Buddhist temples would offer Laba congee to the poor to show their faith to Buddha, hence Laba congee is also known as “Buddha congee”. All the families would also make Laba congee to honor their ancestors. People not only got together to enjoy the congee with their family members but also shared it with other families to express their good wishes.
There are many kinds of Laba congee. The traditional laba congee should include eight main materials and eight supplementary materials. That’s why Laba porridge is also called babao (Eight Treasure) porridge. The main materials usually consists of beans like red beans, mung beans, cowpeas, haricots, peas and broad beans and grain like rice, millet, polished round-grained rice, sticky rice, wheat, oat, corn and broomcorn. People can choose what they prefer from these materials. The supplementary materials can usually be chosen from preserved peach, preserved apricot, walnuts, jujube paste, chestnuts, persimmons, melon seeds, lotus seeds, peanuts, hazels, pine nuts, preserved pear and raisins.
After choosing the materials, it is time to put them into a pot full of water and cook them on a slow fire. When all these have been done, some sweet seasonings like sugar, rose and sweet osmanthus will be added into it. The Laba congee varies in different areas in China, and the most delicate one is in Beijing, which can have more than twenty types of ingredients in the congee.
If the family is very particular about the festival, they will pay special attention to the color of the congee. All the deep-colored beans will not be taken into consideration. Only polished glutinous rice, seeds of Job’s tears, water-nuts and lotus seeds are chosen as the materials and made into congee. The white congee placed in exquisite dishware is not only delicious but also good-looking. Moreover, it is also an indication of good luck and bumper harvest. People who are even more particular about the festival will carve the fruits into shapes of people or animals, and knead the food into the legendary figures with colors such jujube paste, bean paste, tomatoes and haw jelly cakes. This kind of Laba congee, however, can only be seen on the altar tables of some big monasteries.
When the Laba congee is done, it should first be offered to the gods and ancestors as the sacrifice. Next will be the relatives and friends, and the congee must be sent out by noon. Finally the whole family will enjoy it together. The leftover Laba congee, even if it is left after several days, is considered as a good omen since it suggests that you have more than you need every year. What’s more, if you share the congee with people in need, it will be seen as an accumulation of virtue.
Besides cooking Laba congee, people in northern China also have the custom of making “Laba garlic” on Laba Festival, by putting the garlic in jars which are filled with vinegar and a little sugar. These jars are sealed and places in the warm room. On the New Year’s Eve when the family is ready to eat jiaozi (dumplings), the garlic will be brought to the table. The vinegar-soaked garlic cloves take on a jade-like green color, which not only looks nice but also is good for health.