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The Feast of Hungry Ghosts, also known as the Hungry Ghosts Festival, is an ancient traditional holy day in China. The Feast of Hungry Ghosts itself is held on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month, although festivities may take place both before and after, during the seventh month, which is sometimes known as Ghost Month.
The Feast of Hungry Ghosts is practiced in slightly different ways by traditional Chinese folk adherents, Taoists, and Buddhists. Both Taoists and Buddhists lay claim to the festival as originally being their own, but there is evidence that the festival existed within the folk religions and made its way into both Taoism and Buddhism later.
The Feast of Hungry Ghosts relies on a belief in a construct of ancestor worship, in which the ghosts of deceased ancestors, particularly older ancestors, are thought to live in a world beyond ours in which they have their own needs and desires. During the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, the gates to Hell are cast open and the spirits are allowed to enter our world fully, to partake in food and drink, and to take offerings.
In Buddhism, the Feast of Hungry Ghosts is tied to the Buddha’s life, as the Joyful Day. On this day, it is said, the Buddha gave instruction to his disciples on how they could help achieve release for his mother, who had been reborn into a Hell realm. In doing so, many of his disciples achieved enlightenment, and the Buddha was happy.
It is also tied to Buddhism through a story of a monk, Mahamaudgalyayana, who saw that his deceased father had gone to a Heaven realm, but his deceased mother had gone to a Hell realm. When Mahamaudgalyayana visited the Buddha and asked Lord Buddha to help him release his mother, Lord Buddha gave him instructions on how to give her food, to assuage her hunger. He did so, and his mother was able to be reborn as a dog, and eventually, through Mahamaudgalyayana’s other good deeds, as a human.
There are two different ways people treat the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, much the same as the Mexican holy day, the Day of the Dead. Some people take it as a time to honor and cherish the memories of deceased ancestors, and to offer them food, drink, and other goods to bring them happiness. Others view it as a time to have some fear of the dead, and give offerings in order to stave off the hungry ghosts from hurting them or their loved ones.
Many offerings that take place during the Feast of Hungry Ghosts are done via paper models of whatever is being offered. Some Chinese burn Hell Money, fake notes of paper, to send them to the dead spirits. Others burn paper televisions, bicycles, radios, and other gifts that will help the spirits have better lives on the other side.
The festival lasts for fifteen days after the completion of the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, and during those fifteen days it is thought that the spirits may still wander the mortal realm, enjoying our offerings and exploring. At the end of the festival the spirits return to their own realms, content to stay their with their offerings until the next year.
Many of the food offerings are left alongside the roads and street corners and even outside houses. This is supposed to keep the hungry ghosts from entering homes.
Many Chinese people avoid traveling during this time. Businessmen avoid flying in airplanes or closing business deals during this time because it is seen as bad luck.
People generally do not get married during this time because it is believed that the ghosts will mess up the plans and your marriage may be jeopardized. Swimming is also considered dangerous during the Hungry Ghost times. The children are told that the ghosts will pull them under so that they will have a soul to take their place in Hell.
Taai Si Wong is known to be the leader of the Hungry Ghosts. He gets first dibs on the food. It is said that Taai Si Wong keeps a notebook and acts as the “policeman” for the festival to ensure that the ghosts are behaving and that everything has been completed properly. The effigy of Taai Si Wong is burnt with joss paper (fake money) to send him back to his hell when the Hungry Ghost Festival has ended.
There are often stages set up for singing and puppet shows. The first row is left empty for the spirits.