In Malaysia, the Chinese community celebrates the “Hungry Ghost” festival on the 14th or 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Bernama pic

“ROBERT the younger died and was buried in the churchyard, but used to go forth from the grave at night and disturb and frighten the villages, and the village dogs would follow him, barking mightily.” M.R. James (Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories)

Do you believe in ghosts? Since ancient times, tales, myths and legends about ghosts have been told at firesides or on dark rainy nights.

The first ghost story was probably written by a Roman lawyer and author called Pliny the Younger. He said the ghost of an old man in chains was haunting a house.

In many cultures around the world, the return of the dead is celebrated in unique ways. In Malaysia, the Chinese community celebrates the “Hungry Ghost” festival on the 14th or 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is believed that during the seventh month, the gates of hell are opened and the dead are allowed to roam the world of the living.

People usually place food, joss paper, incense and candles for the spirits. Chinese opera and singing performances are conducted to entertain the spirits. The front row at these performances are reserved for the dead.

Similarly, the Mexicans celebrate the “Day of the Dead”. Colourful sugar skeletons are made to honour the spirits. Some Europeans celebrate and honour their dead on Nov 2 by decorating graves with flowers and candles. They also place chairs around fireplaces for the living and the departed.

In Japan, the festival to honour the dead is held for three days. The Japanese visit their ancestors’ graves and light fires to invite ghosts to the celebration. At the end of the festival, floating lanterns are placed in rivers or the sea as a guide for the ghosts to return to the realm of the dead. Hindus in India celebrate Pitru Paksha. Here, special food is prepared and offered to the souls of the ancestors.

Finally, Halloween day. This festival dates back 2,000 years to the Celts of Britain. To some extent, it may be related to Pitru Paksha. However, Halloween is celebrated on Oct 31. The Celts believed that the date marks the dawn of darkness. They lit bonfires to scare away the spirits as they feasted and danced around the fires. Carved pumpkins were used to protect oneself from ghosts. Today, the pumpkins are called “jack-o-lanterns”.

The story goes that the pumpkin is named after an Irish farmer called “Stingy Jack”. He was cursed by the devil to walk on this Earth for eternity, using a candle inside a scooped out pumpkin to find his way. In addition to that, “trick-or-treating”, a Halloween custom, has its origins with the beggars of the Middle Ages. They would knock on the doors of the rich on Halloween and ask for food. After receiving their food, they would pray that ghosts would not come to haunt the house of the people who provided them with food.

As time passed, it evolved into our modern version of children knocking on house doors, asking for a “trick or treat”.


George Town, Penang

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