Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy Hungry Ghost Festival...and Halloween

We celebrate lots of holidays in our Chinese/American household. It's always enlightening to learn about and try to explain why you are celebrating a certain day. "Because we just do," doesn't quite hold it for long.

What I find interesting is that although the dates are never the same, most of--and I know I'm leaving some major ones out on both sides--but most holidays serve a similar purpose no matter what country.

Thanksgiving, for example, is similar to the Chinese Mooncake Festival, a time for the family to gather and give thanks for the great harvest.

Christmas is like Chinese New Year, when families gather and children are given red packets of money.

Valentine's Day is Like "7th Day 7th Month Star Festival" in which couples recall the loyalty and love of the two stars--the weaver and cowherd--separated by the Milky Way and only able to meet one night a year.

And Halloween is similar to the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Well, first let's talk Halloween. To the Celts, October 31st marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and ghosts returned to earth. To commemorate the event, they built huge sacred bonfires, sacrificed animals, and wore costumes.

Over the years, the Romans got involved, as did the Christians, changing the holiday around a bit. So when I was a kid, we didn't have bonfires (although in Chicago that would have been nice). But Halloween was still only celebrated for one day a year. Since returning to the US, I've noticed that Halloween gets longer and longer each year with parades and parties and celebrations. In our neighborhood, the fun starts tomorrow. And my daughter, who goes to University at Halloween Central, already has four outfits ready for the festivities.

Like the ever-evolving Halloween, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival lasts a month (7th Lunar Month), and the Chinese believe that during this time the gates of hell open. Ghosts roam the streets of the living. Unlike Halloween, children are to stay off the streets, lest they be snatched up by hungry ghosts. And while candy isn't part of the picture, everyone enjoys the treat of traditional Chinese opera performances all day long, all month long (At least in Singapore.) At midnight on the 30th, the ghosts return to hell and the gates are shut behind them. People prepare glorious meals for their ancestors, and burn joss sticks as well as paper money and accessories in a huge send-0ff bonfire.

So, Happy belated Hungry Ghost Festival....and Happy Halloween. Enjoy a safe time, and chase all those nasty spirits away for the year.

**Not only does Halloween get going this weekend, but it is also the time of the amazing Book Club Expo. ( The cost is a reasonable $65 for two days of listening to a great line-up of authors: i.e. Brian Copeland (Not a Genuine Black Man, Silicon Valley Reads 2009), Masha Hamilton (The Camel Bookmobile), Nicole Mones (The Last Chinese Chef), Gail Tsukiyama (The Samurai's Garden), to name a few. I'll be there Sunday at 3pm as part of an excellent panel: All Abroad--Living and Writing Elsewhere. So, in between parades and boo bashes, come to the Expo.


Anonymous said...

I was driving through town the other night, and apparently it was the dogs' dress-up night! Pretty cute. :)

Lynn said...

Yikes, so we have to stay off the streets for a whole month? And no candy??!!

I can't wait to hear more about the book group expo.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

No candy. Can you imagine? That was one holiday we (or I) tried to export to Singapore. For a few years we had several apartment blocks participating. It was great fun--although halfway through, the kids would inevitably tear off their costumes. So hot, la.
The book group expo was an amazing time. I'm still basking in all the fun. (And my nightstand is now piled high with a new stack of books.)

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

I just heard from the moderator of my Book Group Expo salon, David Corbett, that they don't celebrate Halloween in El Salvador. It's considered the Devil's Day. Interesting, eh?

Anonymous said...

Since you live in the Bay area and have Chinese connections, I wonder if you know Lisa See? The book I read this month for my book club was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Very interesting. I'm looking forward to the discussion about it.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Yes, I've met Lisa See. She's a kind and humorous person. I think she lives in southern CA.

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