The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors - particularly on the 15th day, which is the Yu Lan or Hungry Ghost Festival.
While the festival’s origins are not unlike those of Halloween in Europe, it is also intrinsically linked to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. For the visitor, it’s a perfect opportunity to see some of the city’s living culture in action, with many people tending roadside fires and burning faux money and other offerings for ghosts and ancestors to use in the afterlife. Food is also left out to sate the appetite of the hungry ghosts.
Hungry Ghost Festival traditions are all about appeasing the lost souls wandering among the living during the length of Ghost Month. The living make offerings of food, drink and entertainment to the hungry ghosts seeking earthly fun and comfort, while following superstitions intended to keep mischievous spirits from bringing bad luck to their doors.
People take actions on the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival, and during the entire Ghost Month, to pacify the spirits looking to cause mischief around them. It’s assumed that ghosts won’t curse those who make offerings of food, money and material goods.
Burn incense and joss paper. Around Chinese communities, you’ll see people tending smoldering piles of faux money and replicas of the houses, electronics and cars needed by ghosts in the afterlife. Fires are started in streets and in fields, really anywhere a ghost might pass, but it’s OK if you stick to your backyard.
Leave food offerings for the hungry ghosts. You’ll also frequently see small plates of food left along the roadside for passing ghosts. You can stick with small fruits, tea and sweets to please any ravenous spirits.
Attend a Chinese Opera. To praise the gods and delight roaming ghosts, impromptu performances are held on temporary outdoor stages in large Chinese communities. All are invited, just don’t sit in the empty front row seats reserved for the ghosts.
Prepare a Hungry Ghost Festival feast. It’s believed that the bridge between the living and the dead is strongest on the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival’s full moon. Prepare a large meal to please the ghosts and leave empty seats at the table for deceased family members.
Send the ghosts off with a floating lantern. Release a miniature lotus-shaped paper lantern on a lake or river on the night of the Hungry Ghost Festival or the last night of Ghost Month to direct the ghosts back to the underworld.
Make sure you don’t run into any ghosts. There are many superstitions to guide you. Don’t walk outside at night when ghosts may be around. Don’t go swimming where a ghost might drown you. Don’t disturb offerings by the roadside. Don’t sing or whistle, unless you want a ghost to answer you. The list is endless.
There is a bit of a wink and a smile associated with Hungry Ghost Festival traditions. Indeed, it’s easier to imagine ghosts roaming through an ancient Chinese village than through downtown San Francisco. Even today, Hungry Ghost Festival offerings are made against a merry clatter of outdoor opera performances and entertainment echoing among the skyscrapers of big Chinese cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai. It’s OK to have some fun with the Hungry Ghost Festival and maybe even tease the more superstitious among us - just don’t attract the attention of any ghosts, of course!