It’s Halloween night in the United States. Costumed children, accompanied by chaperoning parents and older siblings, excitedly run from house to house, asking for candy. Carved pumpkins, fake tombstones and dramatic decorative spider webs adorn homes into spookier versions, and even adults join in on the novelty.
Halloween is loosely based on the lore that on Halloween night, the spirits of the dead roam the earth. Many cultures celebrate similar traditions. More than 6,000 miles away, Hong Kong celebrates not just one day of the spirits, but an entire month. The seventh month of the lunar calendar between August and September is the month where it’s believed that spirits of ancestors and restless spirits roam the earth. Some are good and some are full of malicious intent. The good ones are believed to be ancestor spirits visiting descendant families, whereas the bad spirits are of those who died without descendants or were ignored by family during life. These transitory ghosts may seek revenge on the living.
Yu Lan, the Hungry Ghost Festival, occurs or the 15th day of the month, and is the second most famous festival in China after their New Year celebration. The Yu Lan festival includes grand operas, dance performances and pop concerts, and most importantly, feasts of pork, rice, fruit, and sweets. A large pop-up altar is then filled with food and paper goods, and set up as an offering for the dead. Chinese culture is based on a belief system that highly honors family ancestry, and the root of this festival is reverence for those that have passed on.
A common ritual during Yu Lan is the practice of warding off bad spirits. In order to prevent these spirits from negatively affecting them, their families or homes, many Chinese burn piles of incense at the foot of their residences. It’s also common to burn paper representations of money, cell phones, and clothing, right in the street. Not only do they follow these rituals in order to ward off bad energy, but they are also burned in the hopes that spirits will be appeased by these gifts and aid them in luck such as winning the lottery or getting a promotion. This ritual of burning paper goods has developed into a popular, public festival that brings in many tourists.
The inherent cultural reasons for these things are recognized, but not at the forefront. This is not unlike the way we light fireworks on the fourth of July. After the festival, the food offerings are distributed, and similar to the traditions in Halloween, the sweets are reserved for children.
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