Hungry Ghost Festival

Keeping Peace with Ghosts

The harvest season is closing and winter is coming. Festivals celebrate the fruits of the reaping and rituals are held to ward off the coming of spirits who come with the darkness of winter.

Celtic tradition describes a veil which holds back those who have gone before at its thinnest at this time of the year. In parts of Asia, it is described as Ghost Month where all those who have gone before may come back to visit the living. In Mexico, a multi-day celebration is held to support the dead on their journey through nine levels of challenges in the afterlife before their final resting place is reached.

The ancient traditions do not always entertain the idea of friendly ghosts. Failing to perform the ceremonies of Samhain in Ireland would draw the ire of the gods, and those coming from the other side of the veil to visit were not trusted either, so the Celtic would dress as animals and monsters to avoid getting kidnapped. In China, hungry ghosts are roaming the villages looking to claim victims to achieve their rebirth. In Egypt, it was believed the dead passed onto the Field of Reeds, an endless paradise, but even so the ghosts could get angry and rituals existed to diminish their power.

Fear of ghosts was combated as in Egypt where they would deface the tombs of the dead to depower them. While in ancient Ireland they would have “dumb suppers” where ancestors were invited to eat before the living, and children would play as entertainment. The Chinese would light lanterns to show the way out for the dead and offer food to the ghosts who had no living family and so were hungry. The Mesoamericans would provide food and tools for their relatives to use in getting through the challenges of the afterlife.

Today’s U.S. tradition is a blurring of the Samhain, All Saints’ Day (in Middle English Alholowmesse means All Saints’ Day), Native American traditions and a bit of capitalism. It is altogether unique with billions of dollars spent on candy and costumes, millions of dollars made on scary movies, and thousands of haunted attractions nationwide. The average trick-or-treater may not know the roots of their tradition, but they follow it to the extreme and have not forgotten about ghosts.