On the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month (January 22, this year), the Chinese customarily prepare to greet the spring festival by spending several hours brewing up a porridge of nuts and dried fruits.

Laba is celebrated on the eighth day of the last lunar month, referring to the traditional start of celebrations for the Chinese New Year. La in Chinese means the 12th lunar month and ba means eight.

Legends about the origin of this festivity abound. One holds that over 3,000 years ago sacrificial rites called La (腊) were held in the twelfth lunar month when people offered up their preys to the gods of heaven and earth. The Chinese characters for prey (猎) and the twelfth month (腊 La) were interchangeable then, and ever since La has been used to refer to both. Since the festival was held on the eighth day of the Last month, people later appended the number eight (ba in Chinese), giving us the current Laba.

There are two legends as to why we do this. One is that Buddha Sakyamuni was meditating in the mountains, but on the eighth day in the twelfth month, he collapsed in the street due to hunger. Later a shepherdess found him, saving his life by feeding him rice porridge. Thus, "Laba" is considered a grand festival in Buddhism. In early years, monks are said to have held alms bowls to collect rice, chestnuts, dates, nuts and other ingredients to cook laba porridge and distribute it to the poor on the day the Buddha nearly starved. Now, the porridge is presented to disciples and believers at places like Guanghua Temple or Yonghe Lama Temple in Beijing. Eating the porridge is believed to bring the Buddha's blessings, which is why people often call it "Buddha congee."
The other legend says that in his youth, the poor child who would become the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was a cowherd. As punishment when a cow under his supervision broke a leg, he was not given anything to eat. Unbearably hungry, the future emperor found a rat hole and dug out the beans he found within to boil into porridge, finding it incredibly delicious. Later, when Zhu became emperor, he missed the taste of the porridge so much that he asked his eunuchs to use a variety of grains to cook a pot of sugar porridge to feed his followers; thus it passed into civil society. Since Zhu Yuanzhang had it on the eighth day (ba) of the twelfth lunar month (la), it's called laba porridge.

Though originally the porridge was only cooked with red beans, later people added other materials like rice (glutinous and otherwise), peanuts, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and millet, giving laba porridge yet another name: "seven treasures porridge with five tastes."
People in the northeast, northwest and south of the Yangtze River follow this custom every year to prepare ingredients on the eve of the day, taking hours to peel the shells, soak the nuts and boil the porridge over a low flame. Chinese now add an even greater variety of grains like lily, dried gingko seeds and lotus seeds. The congee served at the Yonghe Lama Temple includes cream, dried longan, pulp, raisins, walnuts and more, sustaining the crowds who line up to have a bowl of Buddha's blessings before the new year.