The twelfth lunar month in Chinese is called La Yue（腊月）, so the eighth day of this lunar month is La Yue Chu Ba (腊月初八 là yùe chū bā), or Laba (腊八 là bā). The day is also known as the La Ba Rice Porridge Festival.
The three major customs on Laba are ancestor worship, Laba Rice Porridge (腊八粥) eating and Laba garlic making.
Ancestor worship (祭祖): At the end of the year, working people get more free time to prepare for the sacrifice to the ancestors. The reason lunar December is called La Yue has a lot to do with the custom of sacrifice. First, the worship of ancestors, called “腊” in Chinese, and the sacrifice for the gods, called “蜡”, 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. The radical of “腊” represents the sacrifice of meat to one’s ancestors (“月” symbolizes meat).
Laba Rice Porridge (腊八粥 là bā zhōu, recipe here): There are several legends about the origin of porridge eating on Laba: some claim it is of Buddhist origin; some say the porridge, made of red beans, has the power to exorcize evil from little kids; others say the porridge is in memory of a poor couple. The custom of porridge eating has been well-known throughout history, from the royal court to common people. The most “authentic” porridge is made in Northern China, especially Beiping (北平). 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”). 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 garlic (腊八蒜 là bā suàn): It is an old Beijing custom to soak purple-peel garlic with vinegar and a little sugar. First, pare the old skin of the garlic, then put the vinegar and garlic into a jar and seal it up for keeping ’till the Lunar New Year’s Eve. 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.
Cover image from Wikimedia Commons