Published on August 2nd, 2012 | by Christopher Moriarty0
Opening the gates of hell at the Hungry Ghost Festival
If there’s one thing that sounds scarier than a ghost, it’s a hungry ghost. Remember Slimer from Ghostbusters? He wreaked havoc stuffing his face with whatever he could lay his grubby, translucent, little mitts on, and never cleaned up after himself. Still sends a shiver down the spine. But fear not, the delightfully named Hungry Ghost Festival is not a homage to the messy apparition from the 1980s movies, but is in fact a far more spiritual affair during which Buddhists and Taoists in China pay tribute to the deceased.
It’s a long-standing tradition based on the belief that for one month a year the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of deceased ancestors who were not given a proper burial are allowed to roam free. That does actually send scarier than Slimer, to be fair.
Think of it as a Halloween for grown-ups, with traditions including burning incense, throwing food in the air for spirits and even setting fire to paper money being observed throughout ‘Ghost Month’, with the offerings seen as sacrifices to stop the ghosts from harming people or to help ease their post-life troubles. Some families also set extra places at the table for deceased family members to join them for dinner, usually a vegetarian meal.
The festival itself is observed on the 15th day, (or the 14th in parts of southern China) of the seventh month in the Chinese calendar when it is believed that the gates to hell are open widest.
The day of the main Ghost Festival sees families take part in the biggest feast, with food being offered to the ghosts to help stop them bringing bad luck. Any ghost sitting down at your dinner table sounds like pretty bad luck in the first place, but feeding them keeps them friendly (no, not like Casper, this is a serious religious tradition you know). Special outside altars are built and piled high with food for Buddhist priests to host ceremonies to ease the suffering of the ghosts. Rice and other foodstuffs are tossed into the streets, the smell of incense fills the air and paper lanterns are floated out onto rivers to help the ghosts find their way back once the festivities draw to a close.
Having started in China, rituals also take place in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, many of which have developed their own traditions to mark the festival – with some places really making the most of it with glitzy concerts complete with dancing girls (that doesn’t sound very spiritual) or huge fires for burning the offerings and effigies of the King of Hell.
In Malaysia and Singapore, live concerts and Chinese Operas take place in towns and cities, Japanese rivers are lit up in eerie style with candles and lanterns, while in Hong Kong fires at the sides of the roads are common as people burn imitation cash, known as ‘hell money’, during their sacrifices. So forget the Proton Pack, if there’s something strange in your neighbourhood this month, a packet of rice, some Monopoly money and a box of matches are all you need.
Ghost Month in 2012 will run from August 17 to September 15 in the Western calendar, with the Hungry Ghost Festival itself on August 31.