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Hungry Ghost Festival

Just as the West has Halloween for ghosts and ghouls, so also does China have a holiday to fete the departed spirits of the underworld : Ghost Festival, a popular occasion celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar.

Activities of the festival include preparing ritual offerings of food, and burning ghost money (or paper money) to please the visiting ghosts and spirits as well as deities and ancestors. Other activities include burying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies "giving directions to the lost ghosts."

The Chinese believe that during this month, the gates of hell are opened up to allow ghosts, particularly those that reside in the lowest levels of hell because they have no one to take care of them, to ascend to the world of the living and accept offerings from anyone who may make them. Propitiating the ghosts with food and gifts will earn their goodwill -- and perhaps good fortune; incurring their wrath will only bring bad luck.

Also, believers do not embark on any new enterprises during the festival days. It is a time to play safe. Children are cautioned not to stay out too late for fear of coming into contact with the freely roaming spirits.  

The Ghost Festival has roots in the Buddhist festival of Ullambana that has origins in India. The Ullambana Sutra narrates the story of a Buddhist monk, Mahamaudgalyayana, who instructs his mother to provide food and shelter to wandering Buddhist monks, and gives her some money. But being greedy, she appropriates the money for herself, and is then consigned to the depths of hell. There, she wanders as the Hungry Ghost: her belly is big, and she is forever hungry, but her throat isn't wide enough for her to ingest any food. The dutiful son rescues her after battling the demons of hell, and initiates the ritual of making offerings to those who who have slipped the surly bonds of earth.

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