How To Explain Hungry Ghost Festival To Your Kids

“Why are people putting food on the road? Can I eat them?”

Now that the Hungry Ghost Festival is here, your kid might have seen the offerings placed by the roadside, or seen people burning joss paper. They might be confused, or feel spooked to hear that there are ‘spirits’ wandering the streets. Either way, it’s a good idea to explain what the festival is about, rather than leave them with fears and misunderstandings. Plus, it’s a good opportunity to teach them about different customs as well as nurture cultural awareness and respect.

When broaching the topic, it’s important to gauge their reactions and adjust your responses accordingly. Keep the explanations simple, gentle, and age-appropriate to ensure they feel comfortable and informed without feeling scared. If you need a little help, here are some facts behind the festival’s origin, and how you can share them with your young ones.

What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Zhong Yuan Jie to Taoists or Yu Lan Pen Jie to Buddhists, is a traditional and cultural Chinese festival observed during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It’s believed that during this month, the gates of the spirit realm open, allowing ghosts and spirits to visit the human world.

Why is it called the “Hungry Ghost” Festival?

Traditionally, it is believed that some ghosts and spirits might not have family members to offer them food and gifts. They are referred to as “hungry ghosts.” During the festival, people offer food, drinks, and other objects to these spirits to ensure they are not hungry or lonely.

It’s important to note that depending on local cultural influences and practices, the customs and traditions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival might vary slightly from one region to another.

Photo: 123RF

Where is it celebrated?

The festival is primarily celebrated in various East Asian countries, especially in regions with significant Chinese communities. Some of the countries where the festival is observed include China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

Why do people burn joss paper and display food offerings?

Offerings are a way to show respect to the spirits and provide for them in the afterlife. It is believed that they provide solace and sustenance to the hungry ghosts, deterring them from causing trouble or misfortune. In return, the people who offer them gain blessings and protection from the spirits.

It’s also important to note that while observing tradition, we should practise responsible burning practices, and not pollute the environment or inconvenience others, like the cleaners who have to clean up the mess. Some tips on joss paper burning include:
– Clearing up offerings after prayers
– Burning joss paper in designated or personal burners, and not scattering them
– Burning joss paper in small quantities to minimise smoke

Photo: 123RF

Can ghosts really eat the food?

Ghosts don’t eat like humans do, but offering food is a way to show love and respect. It’s a symbolic gesture to let them know we care about them.

Is it scary?

While it might seem a bit spooky, there’s no need to be scared. Ghosts are part of stories and beliefs, and during the festival, people are focusing on being kind and respectful. It’s more about remembering and honoring those who have passed away.

Are the spirits only around during the festival?

In some beliefs, the spirits are thought to be closer during this time, but people remember their loved ones all year round. The festival is a special time to do something extra special for them.

Is it like Halloween?

While both festivals involve a connection to spirits and the supernatural, they differ in terms of cultural origins, practices, and significance.

However, they are distinct cultural celebrations with different origins and practices. The Hungry Ghost Festival is namely observed in East Asian countries and involves making offerings to the spirits of ancestors and wandering souls. Halloween celebrated in Western countries, has roots in Celtic traditions, where it was believed that on the night of Oct 31, the boundary between the living and the spirit world was blurred. Today, it often includes dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating.

What is getai and why are the first rows of seats left empty?

Traditionally, it’s commonplace for Chinese operas and puppet shows to be held as thanksgiving performances for spirits during the hungry ghost month, but have been gradually supplanted by getai shows. Getai literally translates to “song stage” in Chinese and usually comprises boisterous live stage performances with popular and up-tempo songs. They’re also often characterised by carnivalesque colours, outfits, and backdrops.

The cultural gesture of leaving the first rows of seats empty shows respect and consideration for the spirits and ensure that they have a place to “watch” the performances.