The Laba Festival, celebrated on the eighth day of the 12th month of the lunar Chinese calendar, falls on Jan. 10 this year.
It is traditionally regarded as the prelude to Spring Festival, the most important festival for people of Chinese origin, reminding people to start their preparations for the coming festivities and for wanderers to return home and reunite with the family.
The ingredients for making Laba congee. (Xinhua/Huang Zongzhi)
The ancient Chinese custom was to sacrifice dried vegetables and meat to the god of agriculture, to pray for a good harvest on the next Laba festival.
The Laba congee generally contains at least eight ingredients, a fortunate number in Chinese culture. There's a wide variety: glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds and some other materials like dried dates or chestnut meat.
In the Buddhist tradition, eating and sharing congee commemorates the legend of Sakyamuni, saved by a girl who gave him a bowl of milk on the day he attained nirvana and became a sage. Many temples today have the tradition of giving out Laba congee to the public.
The festival is also the day for people to put garlic in vinegar, to pickle for more than 20 days before the Chinese New Year. The garlic turns emerald green, and this Laba garlic will be eaten with dumplings on Chinese New Year's Day.
Customs vary across the country. People in Qianxian County, east China's Anhui Province, will eat the Laba tofu basked several days before. In Xining City, northwest China's Qinghai Province, locals will eat wheat kernel rice boiled with beef and mutton.
As an old Chinese saying goes, Spring Festival comes right after the Laba Festival, so get ready for a bowl of congee while expecting the long-awaited family reunion.
This year's Spring Festival falls on Jan. 31.