The Laba Festival 臘八節/腊八节) is celebrated on the eighth (ba 八) day of the 12th month (la yue 腊月) and is one of the most important traditional festivals in Chinese culture. It is also a prelude to the Chinese Lunar New Year. This year the La Ba Festival falls on Jan 27.
The festival was originally a day of thanks for a good harvest and sacrifice to ancestors. The festival was used as commemoration of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment at the age of 35. Therefore, many customs of the Laba Festival are related to Buddhism. In the Qing dynasty, ceremonies for the Laba festival would have been held in the Yonghe Temple in Beijing.
Elderly women eating laba rice porridge on Laba festival
Ancestor worship (祭祖jì zǔ):
The reason lunar December is called La Yue has a lot to do with the custom of sacrifice. First, the worship of ancestors and the sacrifice for the gods both frequently took place in the twelfth month, which led to the traditional name of the month: La Yue（腊月). Second, winter is the slack season for farmers so they have time to find things to burn in the sacrifice.
Laba Rice Porridge (腊八粥 là bā zhōu): There are several legends about the origin of porridge eating on Laba:
Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) once attempted to find the right path to awakening by starving himself. One day, when he was starved and weakened, he met a village girl who gave him milk and rice pudding (congee) after mistaking him for a spirit who granted her a wish. He attained enlightenment not long after that incident. Some say the porridge, made of red beans, has the power to exorcise evil from little kids.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, used to live in poverty before he rose to power. He ate congee during those hard times. After becoming the emperor, he asked the people to eat congee as well. The custom of porridge eating has been well-known throughout history, from the royal court to common people. Almost every region in China has its own local recipe for Laba porridge. Eating hot porridge is great in cold winter, and the grain and nuts are considered healthy winter fare.
Laba porridge is mostly made of rice and sticky rice, but can also include sugar, red dates, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, longans, hazelnuts, raisins, red beans, peanuts, water caltrops, roseleaf and other “treasures” (hence its other name, “eight treasure porridge”).
Laba garlic (腊八蒜 là bā suàn): It is an old Beijing custom to soak purple-peel garlic with vinegar and a little sugar for twenty days starting from the Laba festival. When the whole family gets together for the dumpling feast on Spring Festival Eve, they take out the Laba garlic which will be crisp, with a vinegary flavor and a green color.
Vinegar with the aroma of garlic is the best seasoning for dumplings.
Beating Spring Ox:
On the first day of spring the government would hold a ceremony called “Beating Spring Ox” with the purpose of encouraging farming. After the ritual of “Beating Spring”, people would compete in grabbing the scattered pieces of the earthen ox, which would dispel pests or ants, and bring them good harvest in farming and abundant production of silk and livestock.
Officials using a colorful club to beat an earthen ox after worshiping the God of Grain; this was the so-called “Scourging Spring”. Even today, people in some places name Spring Begins as Beating Spring.
1. The most authentic porridge is made in Northern China, especially Beiping (北平).
2. Customs of having La-ba porridge is preserved in Northeast China, Northwest China and Jiangnan but it has become rarer in Southern parts of China.
3. During the rule of Qing dynasty, ceremonies for the Laba festival would have been held in the Yonghe Temple in Beijing.
Source: Wikipedia & hujiang; Pic source: hujiang and google search.