Laba Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month (This year falls on January 17, 2016). Is a day for celebrating harvest, offering sacrifices to ancestors, and worshiping gods. But above all it is a day for cooking Laba Congee, a hodgepodge of grains, beans and dried fruits used to invoke peace and good fortune.
Celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, Laba is a traditional Chinese festival. Beginning in 15th century China, this was a day for celebrating harvest, offering sacrifices to ancestors, and worshiping gods. For ordinary Chinese people, the most important thing during Laba Festival is cooking Laba Congee, a hodgepodge of grains, beans and dried fruits. Laba congee is used as sacrificial offerings to gods and ancestors, as gifts to friends, and as food for family dinners – all to invoke peace and good fortune.
Chinese people believe that eating congee during Laba festival will bring good luck. As the folk ballad goes: “A bowl of Laba Congee gives an old man health and longevity; a bowl of Laba Congee brings a child happiness day after day.” Laba Congee is infused with Chinese people’s beautiful expectations of a happy life.
Folktales abound as to the origins of eating congee during Laba Festival. According to the most famous one, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (reigned 1368-1399), used to herd cattle for a rich man. One day, his carelessness caused a leg of one of the cows to be broken. The rich man was so angry that he locked up the culprit in a small room and didn’t allowed food to be given to him. After some time, the famished Zhu Yuanzhang found in a corner of the room a rat hole that contained a supply of stolen red beans, rice, red dates and other produce. These he washed clean and boiled into congee, on which he feasted voluptuously. Because that day was the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang named the congee Laba Congee (the congee of the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month [the La month].
To a Chinese, eating Laba Congee together with all family members is a Laba event not to be missed. On Laba Day, Mr. Zhou, who lives in Shanghai, got into his car as soon as the work day was over and drove to his mother’s home in the suburbs. “Laba is a holiday for reunion. Gathering together for a congee feast every year on this day has become a custom in our family,” said Mr. Zhou. “When I was a child, our family was poor, and we didn’t have much in the way of food. So, eating Laba Congee during Laba Festival was something we children looked forward to. When we were finishing up a bowl of congee, we even licked the bottom of our bowl so clean that not even a tiny bit of congee was left. Nowadays, our life gets better and better, and eating congee has long stopped being a big thing, of course.
However, full of family love, Laba Congee occupies a special place in our hearts.”
The special significance of Laba Congee in the hearts of the Chinese people lies in the joy of sharing. According to the traditional custom, the freshly cooked congee is sacrificially offered to gods and ancestors first, given to friends and relatives next and only then eaten within the family. Granny Li, a resident of Beijing, cooks a big pot of Laba Congee every year on Laba Day, and enjoys the milk of human kindness that comes with sharing her congee with neighbors. She said, “Laba is a holiday for thanksgiving. When you give your congee to others, you are accumulating merit for yourself.” It is this Chinese thought that inspires many temples to give away congee on Laba day. With the ever heightening social awareness of charity, it is now commonplace for businesses to also give away free congee. People gather together for a taste of the warm, luscious Laba Congee, savoring the richly festive atmosphere.
In rural areas, humans are not alone in eating Laba Congee; even the six domestic animals (horse, ox, goat, fowl, dog, and pig) are fed a few ladles, for this is said to make them strong and fertile. In some places, people go as far as applying the congee to the trunks and flower-bearing branches of fruit trees so that the coming year will be fruitful. The folk wisdom says that, the more congee you make on Laba Day the better, because storing the uneaten portions in a freezer for later consumption is a good sign that every year will end with ample surplus for you.
As time passes and times change, the ancient Laba customs of sacrifice and invocation are no longer familiar to people. The custom of eating congee on Laba Day has gradually evolved into a pursuit of healthy living. According to Chinese medicine, winter is the season to nourish the kidneys, and legumes, liberally used in Laba Congee, are highly effective in this regard. This, plus its restorative effects of warming the stomach and alleviating cold, makes Laba Congee an excellent winter tonic. Nowadays, most Chinese families prepare nutritious and tasty Laba Congee that uses over ten kinds of ingredients including peanuts, red dates, lotus seeds, and walnuts. The growing attention to the variety and quality of ingredients attests to the ever increasing prosperity of the Chinese people.
In North China there is the custom of pickling garlic in vinegar on Laba Day. After some pickling, the garlic will turn green. This pickled garlic goes very well with dumplings. In Chinese, the words “garlic” and “calculate” have the same pronunciation; therefore, eating garlic on Laba Day is symbolic of reckoning the year’s income and expenses as year-end approaches.
Because northerners like foods made from wheat flour, they eat Laba noodles on Laba Day.
BOILING FIVE KINDS OF BEANS
In some areas, people boil five kinds of beans and make a dough in the shape of sparrow’s head on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. They believe if they eat “sparrow heads”, the sparrows will have headaches and not harm their crops in the coming year.
Northerners have a custom of leaving a basin of water outside the house to be frozen; they break this ice into pieces and eat it on Laba Day. The ice on this day is said to possess supernatural power, capable of keeping those who eat it free from stomachache for a whole year.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 07. Volume II. March 2010.