Although the Spring Festival formally starts from the first day of the first lunar month, preparation to be carried out prior to the festival has already engendered a strong festive atmosphere. Taking into account the various celebratory activities that commence at the onset of the lunar new year, the Spring Festival lasts about a month.
Preparations for the Spring Festival often begin as early as the 12th lunar month. Spring Festival shopping is no mean feat, as there is so much to buy: clothes, shoes, hats, firecrackers, couplets, incense, sweets, fresh and dried fruits, meats and more. There is also plenty of manual work to be done, such as preparing meat, and making steamed buns and New Year puddings. According to custom, no meals, apart from dumplings, are cooked during the first couple of days of the Spring Festival, the fare being heated-up food that has been prepared prior to the festival.
Laba Festival (the 8th day of the 12th lunar month) is regarded as the prelude to the Spring Festival, and Laba porridge is the main dish for that particular day. The porridge has at least eight ingredients, including rice, beans, jujube, and nuts, thus symbolizing a bumper grain harvest. On this day, people also pickle the meat and garlic to be consumed during the Spring Festival.
One popular folk belief is that during the 12th lunar month all the gods and spirits either ascend to heaven or descend to hell to report on the family activities over the past year. People take this opportunity to clean their house, so the gods and spirits will not be disturbed or offended. The house cleaning is also carried out to create a neat and festive environment for the Spring Festival. Two other major activities that occur before the Spring Festival are offering sacrifices to the kitchen god on the 23rd, and greeting the Jade Emperor on the 25th of the 12th lunar month.
The kitchen god is a household god. People offer him delectable dishes to encourage him to say good things about the family when he goes to heaven to make his report, thus securing the family good luck throughout the new year.
The Jade Emperor is the head of all the gods worshipped by Chinese people. It was believed that he comes to inspect the secular world followed by all other gods on the 25th of the 12th lunar month, and that mortals should prepare offerings at their homes to greet the Jade Emperor. As he would have already eaten his fill of rich, epicurian delicacies, his only desire at the homes of the common folk would be to eat a bowl of red bean porridge.