If you’ve been feeling a bit tired or run down lately, take heart that you couldn’t have picked a better time to get some extra rest. August 14 marked the beginning of the 7th lunar month, also known as “Ghost Month” or “Hungry Ghost Festival” or Zhong Yuan Jie, in traditional Chinese culture. Similar to the American holiday Halloween, August 14 – September 12 marks the month when ghosts and spirits walk the earth among the living. As such, you are encouraged not be out late (among other things we’ll get to) as the night belongs to the ghosts.
What to do:
On the first day of the month, the gates of hell are opened and the spirits and ghosts are “set free.” At this time, deceased members of the family are given offerings to welcome them back. Offerings can vary widely but usually include food, flowers and specific items the family ghost liked. There are also wandering ghosts (not related to you) so you should also leave them offerings – teas, biscuits, candies, paper money – are common. Many people will burn paper money, fake gold and paper goods (as sophisticated as paper iPhones, laptops and Ferraris) and offering them up to the spirits to show their respect and keep them happy. Prayers are also respectable offerings.
In addition to praying and gifts, traditionalists will entertain the ghosts. Getais – live stages for performances – are erected during this month and loud, lively shows will be performed to keep the spirits entertained. As the spirits can be both good and evil, a lion dance is often performed to scare away the evil ghosts.
On the fifteenth day of the month, known as the Ghost Festival or Hungry Ghost Festival, the gates of hell and heaven remain open. This is a time for rituals to help dissolved the deceased of their sins. Usually an elaborate meal is served around a table with seats open for all the living and deceased members of the family. Sometimes lanterns are set free in water to provide lost ghosts direction.
What NOT to do:
Just as there is generally understood protocol about how to act and what to do, there is also plenty of things you should not do during this month.
When attending a “Getais,” do NOT sit in the front row. These VIP seats are reserved for the spirits.
Do not take pictures of ceremonies or offerings. It is believed that spirits can be captured – which I’m guessing is bad for both of you.
Be wary of pretty girls trying to get your attention. These could be tricky ghosts trying to lure you to them.
Don’t respond to someone calling your name late at night. It could be the spirits calling…
If you must respond, turn around using your entire body (not just your head). It is believed that there are torches sitting on both your shoulders. Turning your head will extinguish one of the torches leaving you off balance and completely upsetting your yin and yang. (And you don’t want to mess with the yin and yang.)
Try to avoid water and swimming. The evil ghosts who died of drowning will try to take you with them.
Don’t kill “rare” insects you find in your home. Rare is left up for interpretation but generally considered to be evidence of loved ones coming back to be with you. (It’s probably safe to assume no one is coming back as the common roach. Phew!)
Don’t leave your clothes out to dry. Ghosts will swoop right into those t-shirts and infiltrate your home.
Don’t leave an open umbrella indoors. The spirits will use them to seek shelter.
Don’t disrespect any offerings you may come upon by stepping on them, making a joke of them or even trying to clean them up. They are offerings for the spirits and any interference is disrespectful.
And of course, as we mentioned, don’t stay out too late!
I can’t seem to find any proper greeting to accompany this month but somehow “Happy Ghost Month” doesn’t feel quite right. Instead, we’ll sign off with “good luck greetings!”
(Tomorrow, look out for how you can protect yourself from the vengeful spirits!)
For more on Singapore’s festivals, click here!
By Kathleen Siddell, August 2015