The Hungry Ghost Festival

Today is the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and also the Hungry Ghost Festival.
But let’s back up a bit. If there’s one month in the lunar calendar where superstitions are high, it’s the seventh month of the year. On the first day of the seventh lunar month, the “Ghost Gate” between the human and ghost realm opens, unveiling the start of the “Ghost Month” where spirits are able to roam our world.
I can’t speak for other Asian cultures, but here in Taiwan people pray to the spirits of their ancestors all year long (think the ancestor shrine in Mulan). But then there are the orphan ghosts, the ones that have no one to remember and pray for them. It’s believed that they’re here to “find friends” by drowning those in large bodies of water, or wishing ill fortune on those getting married during this time.
As these orphan ghosts have been abandoned all year, naturally they’re hungry and, most likely, cranky. So on the 15th day of the ghost month, the people gather together to pray to the abandoned spirits and invite them to a feast with an abundant amount of foods, snacks, and drinks. This celebration in Taiwan, is called “Zhong Yuan Pu Du (中元普渡)”, meaning that you’re praying for all ghosts to successfully cross over to the spirit world. And like all successful parties, it’s believed that these orphaned ghosts are more willing to cross back into the spirit world once the Ghost Gate closes at the end of the month. And don’t worry, the physical food is split amongst the living – we Taiwanese would not allow food like this to go to waste.
Like all traditions, the ghost month has changed with time. While these age old superstitions are still firmly weaved in the fabric of society, “ghost month” has shifted to fit the modern day narrative. The seventh month used to be plagued by ominous threats and myths, but in recent years, people have begun to adopt a friendlier narrative for the month. We’ve seen commercials where the “virgin ghost” reminds you to love yourself, or how the human tries to figure out the spirit’s favourite food.
Do I believe in the gates between the ghost and human realm opening during the seventh month of the lunar calendar? Perhaps. I cannot for sure say that it doesn’t. But it’s always fun watching traditions shape themselves to fit current narratives, to learn more about local traditions and celebrations, and to see how people are able to celebrate life and remember those that have left us.

By Daphne Shen

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