The Ghosts Eat First

DSC_0010.jpgAll around my neighborhood, big hairy spiders, twinkling jack-o-lanterns, and the occasional tombstone have sprouted up on porches and across front yards. Halloween is quickly approaching, to be celebrated by kids dressed up as princesses and pirates canvassing door-to-door for candy and the occasional fright.

The other day, curious about the origins of Halloween, I discovered that it started as a day devoted to remembering the dead. That reminded me of a similar holiday in Taiwan – not just a day, but an entire month, called Ghost Month or 鬼月.

During Ghost Month in Taiwan, people try to appease the ghosts of the dearly and not-so-dearly departed with feasts,
performances, parades, and ceremonies. A happy ghost is a trouble-free ghost, and appeasing them will help ensure another year of peace and prosperity.

Ghost Month occurs in the seventh lunar month, which roughly corresponds to August, depending on the year. Tradition has that on the first day of Ghost Month, the gates of the underworld open to allow ghosts of the deceased to freely roam the earth for 30 days.

DSC_1015.jpgFor an entire month, these ghosts haunt the streets looking for trouble, so people do all kinds of things to keep them satisfied and at bay. For example, you must never whistle after dark – that’s just inviting the ghost to follow you home. Definitely don’t leave an open umbrella outside, or a ghost might use it for shelter and enter your house when you bring it inside. Best to refrain from swimming as well, lest the ghosts of drowning victims pull you under the water so you can join them!

The climax of Ghost Month happens on the 15th day, the appropriately named Ghost Day (中元節). On this day, people gather to burn incense and ghost money, and lay out lavish amounts of food to feed those always-hungry ghosts.

Altars set up in front of a shop in Taipei

Ghost money, sometimes called “joss paper”, is fancy decorated paper made to look like money for the underworld. Burning it is a way of offering it to the deceased and showing them respect. The same goes for paper clothes, paper cars, and even paper Louis Vuitton bags for the more fashion-conscious ghosts.

When I spent Ghost Day in Taiwan this past summer, I saw altars full of food, incense, and the ever-present ghost money set up on sidewalks,in front of shops and banks, even police stations, all to placate any hungry ghosts that may pass by their establishments.

As a little girl in Taipei, my favorite part of Ghost Day was my mom cooking a huge feast that always DSC_0001.jpgincluded a whole poached chicken for the altar, which we would then place piping hot out on the front balcony of our apartment. Alongside the chicken there would also be a whole fried fish, stir-fried vegetables, a heaping bowl of rice, fresh fruits, and even some packages of cookies as a treat.

I would hover around the table asking when we could eat, trying to sneak a piece of a cookie when nobody was looking. My mom would save the poached chicken giblets for me to gnaw on as a futile attempt to keep me quiet. Naturally, I assumed that like most people, ghosts didn’t really like chicken liver either.

As I stared at the altar overflowing with food, I would ponder deep philosophical questions, at least deep for a kid: Can ghosts really be hungry? Who opens up the gates of the underworld and why? Since the food doesn’t appear to get eaten, how do we know when the ghosts are done? In my mind, I saw characters shaped like Casper in front of our altar, ravenously wolfing everything down Cookie Monster-style, then moving on to the next house to repeat the same process. Come to think of it, that’s not unlike the roving hordes of costumed trick-or-treaters scouring American neighborhoods for every last piece of candy.

Sometimes I’d wonder why we burn ghost money for the ghosts. I mean, it’s not like there’s a shop in the underworld for them to spend this money, right? My mom would simply tell me to stop asking so many questions, and to stop touching the food. Remember, she said, the ghosts have to eat first!

Ghost Day is still widely celebrated in Taiwan, but like everything else it has evolved with the times. This year for Ghost Day, my mom’s apartment building set up a large tent and 50-odd tables in the courtyard as a communal altar. All the residents pitched in and covered the tables with food, drinks, ghost money, and incense, while neighbors gathered to greet one other.DSC_0003.jpg

This was the first time I’d spent Ghost Day in Taiwan after living in the US for many years. I looked around for the whole chickens and fried fish of my youth (as may have some of the ghosts), but in their place, I saw giant bags of Lays potato chips, two-liter bottles of Coke Zero, cases of instant noodles, and stacks of Green Giant creamed corn cans, all likely purchased at Costco. For a returning Taiwanese after two decades of absence, this was quite a change from the memories I still held of Ghost Day. When I was little, there was no such thing as “family-size” bags or bottles, no such thing as a big-box warehouse store. But with Taiwan a core part of the globalized economy and integrating more global influences, things have changed, sometimes at a rapid pace.

While chatting with a neighbor, I mentioned how different the offerings are today compared to my memories of Ghost Day. She said jokingly that modern ghosts deserve modern food, so it’s more fashionable to set up offerings of diet Cokes and Cheetos than the old-fashioned spreads of my childhood. I couldn’t help but feel pangs of nostalgia for the traditions of my childhood amidst such differences.

And these feelings led me to ponder more unanswerable questions: How do the ghosts feel about eating cases of instant beef noodles rather than my mom’s fried fish? Are they packing on the pounds courtesy of chips, dip, and sugary soda, just like the rest of us? And what do the kids snack on now while waiting on the ghosts to finish their feast if there are no chicken giblets? More importantly, exactly what sinister new tricks do modern ghosts have up their invisible sleeves if our efforts to appease them don’t make the grade? Have they forsaken umbrellas and now haunt scooters and subway trains? Will they mess with our GPS systems so we unwittingly end up at the opposite end of town? What if they decide to reprogram the DVR so it records nothing but hours of Ginsu Knives infomercials?

Whatever tricks they may choose, do your best to keep the ghosts at bay, and have a happy Halloween!


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