Sometimes keeping track of dates on the calendar becomes quite confusing in this part of the world. Especially in January when we are celebrating the beginning of a new year, we are also approaching the end of the annual cycle according to the lunar calendar. This weekend we celebrate the “Minor Cold” 小寒 (Siu Hon) of the 24 Solar Terms, which marks the countdown to the new year. So, we are at the beginning of a new year, but at the same time, coming to the end of a year. Technically, we can put our new year’s resolutions on a one-month trial period before setting them in stone.
After the “Winter Solstice” (Dongzhi), we gradually move from long night, short day to having more daylight. But while daylight gets longer, the weather also gets colder. Between the “Winter Solstice” and the “Start of Spring” 立春 (Lap Chun) we are supposed to be in the coldest period of the year, like the darkness before dawn, a time to get ready for Spring and for a new year. So, what do we know about the “Minor Cold”?
It is one of the lesser known or celebrated Terms amongst the 24, but do not be fooled by the implication of the term “Minor Cold.” It does not merely remind us that the weather is starting to get colder; it is mostly the coldest days of the year. In fact, there were very few instances of the “Major Cold”, which usually falls on January 20, that were colder than the “Minor Cold.”
Although not hugely celebrated like the “Winter Solstice” with sumptuous family dinners, “Minor Cold” is more a day of doing small acts with great love for the family. It is a time to be reminded of the importance of taking care of the body.
As the days of the “Minor Cold” are the coldest of the year, it is customary to make congee for the family to share; and not just normal congee we see everywhere. We make the special Laba congee 臘八粥 (Laap baat zuk) which includes various ingredients like glutinous rice, black rice, peanuts, red dates, lotus seeds, red beans, mung beans, and other beans that I cannot name. All these ingredients, according to Chinese medical practice, are good for the different parts of our body, and especially good for keeping internal heat.
The reason for making the complicated Laba congee was, on one hand, because of its nutritional value during the coldest days of the year. In fact, ancient Chinese considered congee the best food for health and for releasing internal coldness. On the other hand, “Minor Cold” usually falls around the Buddhist Laba Festival. Obviously, Laba congee was not created for the “Minor Cold,” it was originally made for the Laba Festival, on the eighth day of the twelfth month, and was for offering to the gods rather than for human consumption. As time goes by, people started eating Laba congee to celebrate Laba Festival, and then as the Festival is around the day of the “Minor Cold,” it became customary for having Laba congee on the “Minor Cold.”
Aside from food, another important practice during the “Minor Cold” is sleep. Even in ancient Chinese articles on the “Minor Cold,” it is specified that one should go to bed early and get up late, and thou shalt not be up before the sun is risen. A couple of extra hours of sleep were believed to re-balance the Yin and Yang energy in our body, and of course for help maintaining internal heat on cold days.
So, in honor of our tradition, sleep late and eat congee this weekend. These are actually good practices for every day.`