The December (Là Bā) Festival
In the Chinese Lunar calendar, December is referred to as “Là Yuè” (腊月)–with là (腊) referring to ‘preserved meat’ and yuè (月) to ‘month’. So December is known as the time for preparing meat and fish for their preservation over winter. The Là Bā (臘八) Festival falls on December 8th and is a day when people commemorate Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Buddhist monasteries offer people free porridge and distribute the ten-way good faith. There is a tradition that has been passed down since the times of the Tang (618 – 907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties and this is the Chinese ceremonial congee dish, Là Bā Congee.
During the Qing dynasty, the eating of congee–originally thought to be prepared with red beans–formed a major custom throughout society, from the commoners to the royals. The Emperor and Queen would bless their court officials by giving out làbā Congee, and commoners would incorporate the dish in worshiping their ancestors, as well as take the opportunity to spend time with relatives and friends. The congee signified a blessing. Some followed the example of generosity set by Buddhist monks and give out the congee to the poor. When all was done, preparations for the Lunar New Year would begin.
Since ancient times, the Làbā congee has had many different variations and there isn’t one set recipe. In the Chronicle of the Beijing, written by Chadun Fu–a wealthy merchant of the Qing Dynasty–there is a section that reads:
“The Là Bā Congee uses yellow rice, white rice, jiang rice, millet, water-chestnut rice, chestnuts, red beans, peeled jujube, etc. cooked with water; additionally, coloured red peach kernels, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, hazelnuts and pine nuts are used to add colour, as well as white and brown sugar and trivial grapes to add sweetness.”
It is a very detailed record of how various ingredients were used to achieve desired flavours. Nowadays, people generally use commonly available ingredients, such as dried fruits, rice and beans. There may be half a dozen or more ingredients mixed together. From the standpoint of traditional Chinese medicine, most of these ingredients are believed to have a strengthening effect on the spleen and soften the stomach, as well as balancing the body’s vital energy or ‘Qi’, while also supporting the quality of the blood through expelling coldness and warming the body. The brew is thought to be easy on the digestion and especially beneficial during the colder months.
The Lunar New Years’ Eve and New Years’ Day
The Lunar New Year’s Eve is an occasion for Chinese families to get together for a reunion dinner. Everyone is usually eager to make it to the gathering, so that the whole family can celebrate together. Even if a member of the family must be excused from attending, tableware will still be placed at their spot on the table, as a symbol of family unity. This communal feast is called “surrounding the stove” or “weilu” in Chinese, and honors the past and present generations.
While China’s every region and even household can have their own unique styles when preparing New Year dishes, the main ingredients universally include chicken, pork, fish, and vegetables. The dishes are created to symbolise prosperity, happiness and auspiciousness.
There is a lot of symbolism and creativity that goes into the preparation of the dishes. To give some examples, mustard greens (kai choy) is thought to be symbolic of longevity. It is said that one must eat the whole leaf in one bite, because it represents one’s life, which is not something one wants to cut short but to live in its entirety.
In Taiwanese, “Radish” (菜頭/cài tóu) sounds very similar to “good luck” (彩頭/cǎi tóu), so radishes are often chosen to be in the list of ingredients.
“Chicken” and “family” are homonyms. So having a whole chicken on the dinner table symbolises a reunion of the entire family.
The pronunciation of “fish” (yú) is the same as for “surplus”, so eating fish is considered to be a way to wish everyone an abundant year ahead. However, the fish should intentionally be left unfinished, so that the leftover fish can further symbolise the idea of abundance. It goes along with the common phrase, “An abundant profit every year” (年年有餘/nián nián yǒu yú).
Another indispensable dish on the traditional Chinese New Year menu are glutinous rice cakes. Called “Nián Gāo” (年糕) in Chinese, meaning, “New Year’s cake”, they symbolize one reaching an elevated level of achievement. The words “cake” (糕/gāo) and “high” (高/gāo) have the same pronunciation, hence linked with the phrase, “Reach higher every year” (年年高升/nían nían gāo shēng). People wish each other higher advancement in their life, career or studies.
The classic dumpling (餃子/Jiǎozi) is thought of as a lucky food for the New Year. After the mid-Ming Dynasty, dumplings became indispensable, especially in Northern Chinese New Year dishes. The reason behind it is that dumplings look similar in shape to ancient money–the gold ingot; therefore symbolizing wealth. Dumplings are associated with the phrase, “Money and treasures will come to the family” (招財進寶/zhāo cái jìn bǎo).
The auspicious references imbued into the dumplings go even deeper. Each different filling can, in itself, symbolise different things.
And there’s more. Typically in Northern China, people have a custom of staying up on New Years’ Eve to wrap dumplings before midnight arrives, then eat them within the first hour of the New Year. This is mainly because the Chinese word for dumpling–Jiǎozi–sounds similar to another word “jiāozi” (交子)–which means, “Ring out the old year and ring in the new year” (辭舊迎新/cí jiù yíng xīn).
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern (元宵/yuán xiāo) Festival falls on the first full moon after the Chinese New Year. In ancient times, it was called the Shàng yuán (上元) Festival. It was given great significance, as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), and really took off during the Sui (581 – 618) and Tang (618 – 907) Dynasties.
The rice dumplings have different names. “Yuán xiāo”, “tāng tuán” or as is the case in Southern China, “tāng yuán”. The latter two sound similar to “tuán yuán” (团圆), meaning “reunion”. The rounded dumplings therefore symbolize family union. They are served to honour the relationship, and the harmony and happiness that such togetherness brings. It’s a way to wish the family all the best in what’s to come.
It is said that the custom of eating rice dumplings originated in the Song (960-1279) Dynasty. There are records in the Era Zaji (歲時雜記) and the Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital (東京夢華錄/Dongjing Menghua Lu) of various types of dumplings being served during the festivities. To this day, this tradition of enjoying sticky rice dumplings (Yuán xiāo) together with beautiful lanterns has remained indispensable in celebrating on the full moon.
The Court of the Ming Dynasty recorded their methods for making such dumplings. The main ingredient is the sticky-rice flour and dough is kneaded into small balls that are optionally filled with walnuts or even sugar. The small round dumplings are placed in boiling water, just for a few minutes.
In the Qin Dynasty, dumplings became so popular during the Lantern celebrations, that the festivities took on the name, Yuánxiāo (dumpling) Festival.