BEIJING, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- At dawn, Buddhist temples across China started to hand out free Laba congee, a special meal served at the Laba Festival which ushers in China's Lunar New Year celebrations.
Despite the winter cold, tourists and citizens in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, queued up in front of the Pilu Temple for the free porridge.
"The congee is a blessing for the new year. I got up early in the morning for the congee," said local resident Shang Aihua.
The Laba porridge is made from a dozen varieties of grains including glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds, and red beans.
"Laba" falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. The Laba Festival is considered a prelude to the Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 5 this year.
Chinese people believe the festival meal of Laba congee bears the auspicious meaning of a shared wish for harvest and abundance.
The Laba Festival is also an important holiday in Buddhism. Temples offer porridge to the public to commemorate the Buddha and deliver his blessings.
Qiu Lin, a volunteer at the Pilu Temple, said workers started the preparations for the congee-giving two weeks ago.
"We started handing out the porridge at 7 a.m. The steaming and sweet food bring warmth and blessings to everyone," said Qiu.
At the Beijing Folk Museum, located inside the Dongyue Temple in Chaoyang District, a shed was put up for the congee-giving activity. Volunteers scooped out congee from big steel cauldrons.
Zhu Yi, head of the museum's information center, said the Laba customs were observed by both the imperial families and commoners since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It has sustained the Chinese tradition of thanksgiving and sharing.
He said the Laba activity also warmed up the Lunar New Year celebrations. The museum will hold a series of folk cultural activities that will start Sunday and continue until Feb. 9.
In Lanzhou, capital of northwest China's Gansu Province, primary school students were organized to make paintings with grains.
The community activity organizer Zhang Min said getting to know the ingredients for making Laba congee can inspire children to share the feeling of harvest and learn Chinese traditions and folk customs.
In Zhangzhuang Village, central China's Henan Province, villager Zhang Yanmei was entrusted by the village committee to cook the Laba congee for everyone.
"As the legend goes, once when General Yue Fei in the Song Dynasty led his troops through Henan, his army was short of food. Villagers took out their own grains to cook a cauldron of porridge for the soldiers," Zhang explained while cooking.
The porridge-giving warmed up the festival atmosphere in the village. Many shops started to sell sugar-coated figurines and malt sugar, the traditional Chinese candy for the Spring Festival.