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Chinese people began preparatory celebrations for Spring Festival, their most important annual holiday, on Sunday with the Laba Rice Porridge Festival.
Laba is regarded as the prelude to the coming Lunar New Year, with people starting their preparations for Spring Festival more than 20 days in advance. The 12th lunar month in Chinese is called la yue, so the eighth day of the lunar month is la yue chu ba, or laba.
A folk saying goes "when Laba arrives, the Spring Festival is around the corner", meaning the festival marks the start of a series of Spring Festival celebrations.
It was originally a day of thanks for a good harvest and for making sacrifices to ancestors. Major customs on Laba include eating Laba rice porridge and ancestor worship.
On Sunday, people lined up in front of temples for free Laba rice porridge. Some believe that eating porridge will bring happiness in the next year.
People started to line up in front of Beijing"s Yonghe Lama Temple as early as 4 am.
The temple said monks started cooking porridge on Saturday afternoon, and began serving it at 8:30 am on Sunday. Receiving the first bowl is regarded as a big blessing.
Among those lining up for a bowl was an elderly man in a wheelchair who has received a bowl of Laba porridge from the Yonghe Lama Temple every year since 1984.
A woman drove from Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, for a bowl, starting her journey at dawn on Sunday. She asked for blessings for her newly married daughter.
The temple stopped serving porridge at about 11 am, after more than 8,500 people were fed from 98 pots.
In Shanghai, Jiading Huguo Temple handed out 3,200 bowls of Laba porridge.
There are several legends about how the tradition began. Some claim it is of Buddhist origin, while some say the porridge, made of rice and sticky rice, can exorcise evil from children. Others say the porridge is eaten in memory of a poor couple.
Aside from the main ingredients, people also add sugar, red dates, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, longans, hazelnuts, raisins, red beans, peanuts, water caltrops and other ingredients to make the porridge special.
The custom of eating porridge at Laba is well-established in history, from the royal court to the common people.