Date: the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month
In China, the twelfth month of lunar year is called "a month", and the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month is thus called "Laba Festival" (eight reads ba in Chinese)or "la" day. "Laba" festival is a traditional festival of Han nationality. It is also regarded as the prelude to the Spring Festival.
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 hold a grand ceremony to celebrate the harvest, which was called a "Laba ceremony." After the ceremony people would entertain their fellow villagers with the porridge that were made of their newly gained broomcorn millet. Everybody would get together to enjoy the festival. The la ceremony later developed into a festival mainly to commemorate the ancestors. In the 5th century, the government decided that the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month is the Laba Festival.
After the spread of Buddhism into China, people made up another story based on the traditional custom of honoring the ancestors and eating porridge, saying that the ieghth day of the twelfth lunar month was the day when Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, became a Buddha. The story goes that Sakyamuni had practiced Buddhism for many years and the hunger turned him into a bag of bones and he intended to give up. Right at that time a shepherd girl helped him with rice and porridge, which restored energy into him and brought him into the right track of thought. Contemplating under his bodhi tree, he finally became a Buddha on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. To commemorate this event, the buddhists began to make porridge with rice and dried fruits to make offerings to the buddha on that day every year, and the porridge was called "laba porridge".
The Chinese have been eating Laba porridge for over one thousand years ever since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). At that time, the central and local government as well as the monasteries would make Laba porridge on every Laba Festiva. This custom became particularly popular in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The emperor, empress and princes would grant Laba porridge to their officials and servants and send rice and fruits to the monasteries. All the families would make Laba porridge to honor their ancestors, too.
People not only got together to enjoy the food with their family members but also shared their food with other families to show their good wishes.
There are all kinds of Laba porridge. The traditional Laba porridge should include eight main materials and eight supplementary materials, which accord with the "ba" in "laba porrdge" and suggests good luck ("ba,"in chinese, is usually related to "fa," which means prosperity.)The main materials usually consist 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 he prefers 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 main 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 porridge varies in different areas in China, and the most delicate one is in Beijing. There are more types of fruits in the rice, such as jujube, lotus seeds, nuts, chestnuts, almonds, pine nut kernels, longans, hazels, raisins, water chestnuts, roses, red beans and peanuts, summing up to more than twenty types.
People usually began to get busy since the night of seventh day in that month. They wash the rice, steep the fruits in water for some time, pick out the good ones, peel them, get rid of the kernels and finally began to cook all these materials from midnight. After that, the slow fire will keep them until the next morning when the laba porridge is finally done.
If the family is very particular about the festival, they will pay special attention to the color of the porridge; 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 porridge. The white porridge placed in exquisite dishware is not only delicious but also good-looking. Moreover, it is also an indication of good luck and bumper harvest. The Chinese think that it is a very agreeable scene to have the whole family gathering at the table and eating the delicious laba porridge. Families which are even more particular about the festival will carve the fruits into shapes of people or animals and knead the food with colors such as jujube paste, bean paste, tomatoes and haw jelly cakes into the figures in the legends. This kind of laba porridge, however, can only be seen on the altar tables of some big monasteries.
When the laba porridge is done, it should first be offered to gods and ancestors as the sacrifice. Next will be the relatives and friends, and the porridge must be sent out by noon. Finally the whole family will enjoy it together. The leftover laba porridge, even if it is left after several days, is considered as a good omen since it suggests that there will be leftovers every year. What's more, if you share the porridge with the needed people, it will be seen as an accumulation of virtue.
Besides cooking laba porridge, people in northern China also have the habit of making "laba garlic" on laba Festival. The housewives peel the garlic, put it in jars and fill the jars with vinegar. Then these jars are sealed on the laba Festival and placed in some warm room. When it comes to the New Year's Eve and the family is ready to eat jiaozi, the garlic will be brought to the table. The vinegar-soaked garlic cloves take on a jade-like green color, which is rather beautiful in contrast with the red vinegar and can greatly improve the atmosphere of the festival.