Autumn sees the world around us change from sunshine to darkness, shortening our days and draining nature’s vibrant palette to muted greys and browns. As the pale, chilling limbo of winter approaches, we can’t help but huddle a little closer together whilst our minds turn to thoughts of the macabre. Many cultures have created festivals to light up the dark during these autumn months, as we start to reflect on an idea we attempt to downplay the rest of the year: death, and more importantly, the dead.
In Mexico and South America, November kicks off with the colourful Dia de los Muertos, created through a combination of Aztec and Catholic traditions, whilst many other countries sharing this Catholic influence mark All Hallows’ and All Soul’s Day. In certain Western cultures, this religious observance has interbred with pagan celebrations of the Fae, leading to the creation of Halloween, when both the dead and the magical supposedly draw closer to the land of the living.
In China and much of Asia, a similar celebration falls earlier than all of these: the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated on the 15th day of ‘Ghost Month’, which usually falls in September through the Chinese lunar calendar. Whilst in many ways this spooky-sounding festival resembles Dia de los Muertos in particular, its origins are completely separate.
Unlike other Asian festivals honouring deceased ancestors, Ghost Month is thought to be a time when the realms of the living and the dead exist closer together, making it is possible for spirits to visit their families. The idea comes from Taoist and Buddhist traditions, based on a time of the year when the Buddha and his disciples would meditate deeply and so bring the two worlds closer together. Monks then used this proximity as a time to intercede on behalf of the dead, to ease their experiences in the afterlife; as a part of this, food was left as offerings for ‘hungry’ spirits who were unable to eat as punishment for mistakes made when they were alive. Today, this has become a more whimsical tradition – a way of showing love and respect for those who have passed by leaving smalls gifts and gestures. Of course, there are always plenty of sweets and delicious food left over for the living to enjoy!
As well as leaving small plates of food, families will host large dinner parties, with empty chairs left for relatives who are no longer with them. Entertainment is also put on for the ghostly guests, from small household parties to large cabarets and concerts, with theatres keeping the first few rows of seats are kept empty and numbers dedicated to any who dead who may be watching. In China, effigies are built out of colourful paper or Papier-mâché depicting mythical figures such as the Ghost King – an intelligent outcast who, after he died, was put in charge of keeping the ghosts of the world in order. People leave offerings to the Ghost King in the hope that he will protect their homes by making sure that dead that visit them are behaving themselves! Celebrations also include the burning of incense and joss paper, and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on the water, to symbolises guiding lost ghosts and spirits back to the afterlife.
It’s curious that separate cultures can develop such similar traditions from entirely different backgrounds. Perhaps if we trace things back far enough, these celebrations all came from a single source – or perhaps they just reflect our shared fascination with the supernatural, as well as our ongoing love for those who have passed on. These celebrations brighten the night as the seasons get darker, and are a lovely, candy-coated excuse to make something fun out of something scary, and help those who have left us to feel a little closer in the process.