Arts & Culture

Where is the Halloween spirit?

Maybe in China, definitely not in North America

Where is the Halloween spirit?
written by 王羿杰  (Yijie Wang)
October 22, 2018 4:02 pm

Nobody knows at what particular point in history, the tradition of feasting and commemorating dead people jumped to getting drunk at parties and wearing exotic if not scary costumes.  

But the interesting thing is, the notion of “ghost festivals” exist in many different cultures. And they’re all related to commemoration of the dead. Halloween today is undoubtedly super popular around the world.  

Except Russia. 

Russia is not a huge fan. There’ve been many protests and bans against Halloween in Russia. In 2013, lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, ordered police to break up a Halloween celebration in a park in St. Petersburg. After police broke up the celebrations, which included singing, dancing and pumpkin-carving, Milonov wrote on his blog: “We have managed to stop the witches’ orgy. … We are defending the cross.” 

But it doesn’t bother people in North America to celebrate Halloween whatsoever. What do people do here? They throw parties, pretend to be zombies, carve their pumpkins and get ready for kids to knock on doors for candy. In other words, Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. 

Do people know why they are doing what they do during Halloween? Do they know the origin of Halloween? 

Halloween History 

The beginning of Halloween can be traced back to 2000 years ago.  

Some believe it was Samhain, an ancient Celtic harvest festival, which was a time to gather resources for winter months and bring animals back from the pastures; it’s thought to have been a time when spirits of the dead would cross over into the other world.  

Others believe it was the eve of the Western Christian feast: All Hallows’ Day. A time for honouring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach heaven. No matter what it was, it had something to do with commemorations of the dead. 

Ghost festival in China 

The ghost festival in China, which is called Guijie (鬼节) or Zhongyuan Jie (中元节), is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival to venerate the dead. Compared to western Halloween, Guijie is still “traditional” and it is not even remotely close to being popular. There’s no trick-or-treating, spooky costumes or any other conventions. When you think of the background story of Guijie, the last thing you want to do is to let your kids go out at night and ask for candies.  

During Guijie, the gates of hell are opened, and hungry ghosts are free to wander around the earth where they seek food. Some of these ghosts are believed to be dead ancestors and family members. People must perform certain rituals, for example, offering food and drink, burning joss paper, also known as “spirit money.”  

People light lotus-shaped lanterns and set them afloat to guide the guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors. Since Guijie is directly associated with ghosts, evil, and suffering, there are many things believed to be taboo and totally ominous things to do. 

  1. Don’t touch, step, or kick prayer items and offerings for the hungry ghosts, especially those from temporary altars placed by the roadside. You should also refrain from making jokes or complaining about the prayer altars. 
  2. Do not stay out late in the night because spirits might follow you back. 
  3. Do not stab your chopsticks on your bowl of rice because it resembles the joss stick offerings to the dead. It is indirectly cursing you by inviting death and telling the spirits that it is their bowl of rice. 
  4. Do not take photos at night because you might capture some other stuff that you don’t wish to see. 
  5. If your birth falls in the ghost month, avoid celebrating your birthday at night and blowing out your candles. It’s better to celebrate during the daytime. 
  6. Avoid working late during this month because humans are weak in the night. Spirits are strong and might possess you in your weakened state. 
  7. Don’t lean against the wall because spirits apparently like to stick on walls because they’re cooler, avoid leaning against them during the month 
  8. Don’t turn your head around if someone pats you on the shoulder – it is believed that the living human has two protective flames, one on each shoulder. If a ghost pats you on the back and you only turn your head, you’ll snuff out that protective flame, thus making you vulnerable. To avoid this, turn the whole body at once instead of just the head. 
  9. Do not hang your clothes overnight as it easily attracts spirits to possess them. 
  10. Do not hold your wedding dinner celebration this month because it is believed to bring bad luck to the marriage and might even cause disharmony. 

Guijie’s traditions are being forgotten by more and more people in modern Chinese society. But it hasn’t been transformed into something entertaining and prevalent like Halloween. 

Halloween might be the only festival with the theme of “ghost” that has been successfully shifted into a communal celebration. It is already North America’s second largest commercial holiday. It brings $6.9 billion annually in the United States. 

What is the Halloween spirit? Does it really matter? Halloween has been criticized for losing its spiritual meaning due to all the commercial and media influence. Nobody really relates Halloween to evil spirits, instead, it is joy and fun.  

Yes, Halloween might be stupid and meaningless, and maybe it is just another excuse to throw parties and drink. But people seem happy in Halloween. So, it’s good enough.

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