Offerings of incense, paper money, and fruit for hungry ghosts

The Hungry Ghost Festival: Feeding and Appeasing Hangry Haints

In October Halloween is celebrated by much of the Western world, but a couple of months beforehand, some Asian countries, including Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, and Vietnam, celebrate another kind of ghostly holiday. Here's a short primer on the Hungry Ghost Festival.

What is it?

All of the seventh lunar month is ripe for ghostly activity. On the first day the gates between the worlds of the living and dead open, allowing the dead to roam the earth. By the 15th  the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival (which is Aug. 22 this year)  the specters are starving and cranky, and it’s up to people, especially relatives, to get them happy.

Where did it come from?

While Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the Hungry Ghost Festival comes from either the canonical scriptures of Buddhism or medieval Chinese folk tradition. Either way, it’s equally as old as All Hallow’s Eve — 2,000 years to be exact.

Why so angry?

Some apparitions are hangry, but others are downright mad. Why? According to Buddhist scripture, in the lowest realms of hell are restless spirits who weren’t ready to pass on, didn’t get a proper burial, or were treated badly by their families. Guilty parties have all month to make it up to shafted relatives and to be reminded of the importance of filial piety.

What to do

So what do people do to appease these famished phantoms? They:

  • Burn paper, which represents money and other earthly objects such as cars, mobile phones, clothes, and houses, for their ancestors to use in the afterlife
  • Burn incense to purify the air
  • Offer foods such as fruit, pastries, and other favorites particular to the relative (author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan gives her late grandmother, a famous pineapple tart maker, the largest pineapples she can find)
  • Prepare elaborate meals, often vegetarian to honor the Buddhist tradition, with empty seats reserved for the deceased
  • Light candles and lanterns to help the spirits find their way back home

Now you have the dos. How about the Hungry Ghost don’ts?

What not to do

No-nos on this holiday center on both not offending and avoiding spooks at all costs. Celebrators should make sure to:

  • Not disturb offerings left out for otherworldly roamers
  • Not hang clothes outside to dry as a sartorial-inclined spirit might try them on for size, leaving behind its negative energy
  • Avoid swimming since a drowned entity might pull them under
  • Stay away from the woods at night, a hotbed of paranormal activity
  • Not take photos at night you don’t want to catch a wraith by mistake!
  • Lock up at night since an open door is an open invitation for a poltergeist to come on in
  • Not get married a big wedding banquet is just asking for ghost guests
  • Avoid talking about Caspers, friendly and unfriendly, during this special month as it might offend their sensitive souls

What to read next

To learn more about Asian holidays and festivals, visit our posts on the Qixi Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and Qingming.

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