There is something similar between the Lunar New Year period and the Ghost Month in the level of spread-out activities around the area where I lived in Vietnam.
If Lunar New Year is an occasion that makes the area alive with crowds of people gathering in front of each house where lion dances are performed and firecrackers were lit during this time span, then there are also crowds of children gathering in front of each house during the Ghost Month where offerings to the forsaken spirits are made.
In front of houses and stores, the lion dances are performed to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year while the loud noises of the firecrackers will scare away the evil spirits. Similarly, the offerings placed at the front of the houses and stores and later given away will help guard the household or commercial stores from hungry, wandering ghosts that can trouble or mess up with them or their businesses.
According to the Vietnamese belief, after a person died, their body decays but their soul still lingers in the afterlife. Those who died unjustly, without proper burials or without living relatives, their souls will roam the earth and they can haunt or harm the living.
Mum was a successful business woman before the fall of Saigon in 1975. She designed children’s wear, distributed materials for the workers to sew them then sell them in large quantities at Saigon’s main market – Bến Thành. These clothes would then be resold in other cities and rural areas in Vietnam.
Every year, in a random afternoon of the Ghost Month, joining other businesses around our house which was next to An Đông market, Mum also made offerings to the forsaken, lonely souls. The month is the seventh month of the lunar calendar and that usually is at the end of August.
My job as the eldest was to guard the offerings during the ceremony from the homeless children who lived in the market. It wasn’t unusual that some ceremonies couldn’t even begin as all the offerings were already snatched by the children. With my arms akimbo, I gave the street children a fierce glare. It must be this ready-to-fight-back expression in my body and on my face that had the small crowd of children under control for the ceremony to last till the end.
Mum lit the two candles on the worship table then the incense. In a whispering voice, she prayed to Buddha and the piteous, lonesome spirits then burned the gold and silver paper money offerings for the dead to use in the next world. Around 15mn later, as soon as the incense burned out, Mum threw the salt, rice, coins and bank notes to the ground and gave all the savoury and sweet food as well as fruits on the worship table to the children circled around. It’s considered bad luck if the children of the house take the offerings after the ceremony as that would mean they have invited the spirits into the house.
On the full moon day of the Ghost Month, at noon, Mum also made offerings to our ancestors’ spirits. It usually is a bigger feast of food, fruits and paper money offerings than what was made to the homeless souls. One difference though would be the feast is placed on the altar and Mum would not throw out salt, rice, coins and bank notes on the ground once the ceremony is finished. Some wealthy people on this occasion even burn paper houses, paper cars, paper watches, paper mobile phones, … for their ancestors to use in the afterworld.
The period of Lunar New Year brings cool light wind and low temperature. The Ghost Month occurs during the rainy season in Saigon and cool breezes usually flow around during this time.
Lunar New Year welcomes a forward twelve-month time and it brings joy to the young people as they are given money in red envelopes by the old. In a similar analogy, but in the opposite direction, the Ghost Month is a reminiscent of the backward time when the dead were living and a remembrance event that brings contentment and respect to the dead old with the offerings by the living young.
The Lunar New Year,
Money gifted, the living young cheer.
The Ghost Month event,
Offerings made, the dead old and wandering souls content.