Laba Festival, also simply called "Laba," comes on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the Chinese lunar year. The festival has this name because the twelfth month is also called "la" month in Chinese while the number eight is pronounced "ba."
Since it's in the last month of the lunar year, the festival implies saying goodbye to the old and embracing the new, and often regarded as a warm-up celebration for the upcoming Spring Festival. As an old saying goes, "after Laba, it's the (Chinese) New Year."
Laba Day is also Bodhi Day in the Buddhist tradition. It's said that Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment on this day. Thus, the day is one of the grandest festivals for Buddhists.
The Laba Festival falls on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. This holiday may be traced back to the ancient Chinese custom of sacrificing game to the ancestors during the last month of the lunar year. There are two legendary stories about the origin of the Laba Festival. One 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, he encountered a woman tending her flock.
The woman saved his life by feeding him rice porridge, enabling him to continue meditating and attain enlightenment on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month (the Laba Festival). In order to commemorate this incident, every year at the Laba Festival Buddhists eat Laba porridge, also known as Buddha porridge.
One said that the Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang herded the landowner's cattle when he was a child. He was confined to a small room because one of the cattle broke its leg and the landowner didn't give him any food for three days. Zhu was starved to death and searched every corner of the room. He found a mouse hole and dug out some beans, grain and some other food, so he made some porridge with them and found it delicious.
Later, Zhu Yuanzhang made himself an emperor. When he thought of the delicious taste of the porridge he ate in the childhood, he ordered his eunuchs to use a variety of food to cook sweet porridge and shared with all the top civil and military officials. Later, the officials learned to cook this kind of porridge themselves and introduced it to the civil society. Gradually eating porridge became a traditional custom. The day Zhu Yuanzhang ate the sweet porridge was on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, so this porridge is also called laba porridge.
One of the festival's traditions is to offer sacrifices to the ancestors and gods. In the agrarian societies of ancient times, this worship was a prayer for good luck and a bountiful harvest.
It was also an important ritual for emperors in those times, who would hold grand sacrificial fetes in the winter to show their appreciation to nature and their ancestors.
Those ancient activities could be interpreted as a reflection of "Xiao" (filial piety), "Ren" (benevolence and love) and “Yi” (righteousness) in Confucian values.
Nowadays, the rituals tend to be less formal. People offer sacrifice now more to memorialize family members who have passed away. Those who visit temples on this day are not necessarily religious believers, but want to demonstrate their best wishes for the Chinese New Year.
The tradition to have Laba congee on this day dates back more than a thousand years and is still a major part of Laba day in many places.
Legend has it that, before being enlightened, the Buddha worked hard for many years and was emaciated and weak. Thanks to the milk porridge offered by some shepherdesses, he recovered physical strength and later achieved enlightenment.
Therefore, nowadays, temples adhere to the tradition of offering congee to the public on this day to show appreciation for the kindhearted and to help the poor.
The selection of ingredients for the congee may vary geographically, but generally it include grains like rice, millet, glutinous rice, sorghum, black rice, and coix seeds; beans like soybean, red bean, mung bean, kidney bean, and cowpea; nuts like red dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, goji, chestnuts, raisins, walnuts, and longans.
In northern China, it's also popular to make Laba garlic. People usually put peeled garlic cloves into a container with vinegar and then seal it up. During the pickling process, the garlic will turn green. It is a typical side dish to have with dumplings during the Spring Festival.
In northwest China, some residents in Shaanxi Province eat Laba noodles for the festival. In places like Anhui in east China, people will eat Laba tofu.
These local customs vary based on location and climate and are intended to help people overcome the winter cold and prevent illness.