Chinese Festivals: The Origin and Customs of the Laba Festival

It’s said that the enlightenment of Sakyamuni was on December 8; therefore, the Laba Festival is also called “Buddha’s Enlightenment Festival”. (Image:  Henry_Wang via   Pixabay/ CC0 1.0)
It’s said that the enlightenment of Sakyamuni was on December 8; therefore, the Laba Festival is also called “Buddha’s Enlightenment Festival”. (Image: Henry_Wang via Pixabay/ CC0 1.0)

The 8th day of 12th month in the Chinese lunar calendar is the most auspicious day in December, being one of the important Chinese festivals. It was called “La Ba” (臘八, 12th lunar month, 8th day ) in ancient times, while people today normally call it the Laba Festival.

During the Qin Dynasty, the Laba Festival was a day to worship the gods and ancestors, as well as to pray for a good harvest and and good fortune. In addition, ancient people prayed to drive out epidemic diseases on that day.

It’s said that the enlightenment of Sakyamuni was on December 8; therefore, the Laba Festival is also called “Buddha’s Enlightenment Festival”.

Laba Festival customs

Having Laba congee (porridge) is an important custom during the Laba Festival. Laba congee comes from ancient India. Sakyamuni was originally a prince of Kapilavastu (now in Nepal). He attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree on December 8; hence, people started eating Laba congee in order to commemorate him.

As for China, the history of Laba congee goes back over a thousand years to the Song Dynasty. Everyone, including government officials and civilians, would have Laba congee on that day. During the Qing Dynasty, it became more popular. The emperor, empress and princes would have to grant Laba congee to ministers, or imperial maids. As for the common people, every family would cook Laba congee to worship their ancestors, and most families would have a get-together.

Laba Porridge (臘八粥; là bā zhōu), a mainstay of the Laba Festival, is a traditional Chinese dish that contains at least eight kinds of beans, seeds and nuts. (Image: Xinzi Rao via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Laba Porridge (臘八粥; là bā zhōu), a mainstay of the Laba Festival, is a traditional Chinese dish that contains at least eight kinds of beans, seeds and nuts. (Image: Xinzi Rao via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

There are many different kinds of Laba congee that contain different ingredients all around China. They often have more than 20 ingredients, such as red dates, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, pine nuts, dried longans, hazelnuts, grapes, ginkgo, chestnut, black hair, rose, red beans, peanuts, etc. But the most popular has 8 ingredients, as “ba” in Laba means 8.

Normally it takes 3 to 4 hours to boil congee until it becomes very soft and tasty.

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