|I'm really glad it's of interest. Thankyou to whoever formatted my images. I think I've got the hang of it now.|
So this is the table of offerings for the ancestors at Chinese New Year (this photo from 3 yrs ago). A red embroidered cloth is hung from the front of the table (not visible in this picture). This table, when prepared, is always set up separately from the household shrine, though the household shrine is also decorated.
Once the prayers have been made, the candles lit, and the food laid out, it is quite common for someone to toss a couple of coins (or wooden divination blocks). My cousin showed me this. If the coins land head-tails then it means the ancestors are present. If they land head-head then they are present and happy. If it's tails-tails then it means they are not present, in which case further prayers and efforts should be made to invite them.
In the background of that picture you can see the household shrine, delicately carved from dark wood. I would feel a bit funny posting a proper picture of it up here (a bit personal or something I guess) but it just holds more fruit and incense, and a central framed picture of the chinese goddess of mercy Kuan Yin, the deity honoured by the family.
I should have mentioned this before, but two kinds of ancestor worship can actually be distinguished in chinese and chinese-malay households. One is the 'invitation' system of ancestor worship, and the other is the 'keeping' system. In my family there is no permanent altar to the ancestors because there is no one in the ancestral house to tend to them every day (the house is left empty almost all year round but it's where everyone was brought up so everyone's too reluctant to sell it). In such situations, the family will only invite the ancestors at the festivals and death anniversaries when a temporary altar is set up. So if a permanent altar is set up it must tended or it is deemed an act of disrespect. For families who do practice the 'keeping' system, they usually also have an ancestral tablet on their altar with the names of the ancestors on. In my family, those tablets have been given to the buddhist temple and they keep them there on display.
This is from the local temple where my relatives still go and make prayers. It may be a bit a little dark, but you should be able to see all the ancestral tablets at the back, behind the glass.
Here is a little excerpt from a book by Tan Chee Beng, a chinese anthropologist who researched this particular culture. It is more in depth than I had the chance to find out:
'The temporary ancestral altar is set up on the eve of the day when the worship is to take place. The household-head or usually his wife burns some joss sticks and goes to the front verandah. Facing the direction of the graveyard, if possible, she prays and invites the ancestors back to the house for the occassion. The joss-sticks are then placed on the holder and red candles are lit. In this way, she has invited the ancestors to return to the house to be worshipped. The ancestors will "stay" in the house until a separate ritual is performed to "request" their departure. This involves only the burning of incense and ritual papers. In the case of a one-day worship, the burning of ritual papers at the end of the worship is sufficient to signify the end of the ancestors "stay" and a separate ritual of departure is not necessary.'
And a little about Ceng Beng:
I've never been to a Ceng Beng celebration though my relatives still perform it every year. This is a short description from the same anthropologist cited above:
'Ceng-Beng (baba pronounciation) or Qingming in Mandarin has been described in English at the Chinese "All Souls Day". It normally falls on April 5th of the solar calender. Ceng-Beng is a festival to commemorate the dead of the family....
Ceng-Beng festival is mainly for visiting and worshipping ancestors at the graveyard. On arrival at the graveyard, the worshippers clean the grave, remove the grass and sweep the tomb. After cleaning, pieces of mock money are placed on the grave, each being weighed down by a small stone or some soil to stop it from being blown away by the wind. This ritual is called técoa (Hokkien: teh choa) which in Hokkien literally means "weighing down the papers". After this, the offerings are laid out and the worshipping begins.
-There is likely to be much more information on this on the net somewhere.
Finally, this lantern is more to do with funerary rites rather than ancestral worship but this is just something I found interesting in a short 'Did You Know..?' kind of way.
Traditionally, lanterns are particularly important symbols after a death in the family. They're hung out in front of the house, visible to neighbours and passer-bys. Blue and white lanterns are used to signal a premature or unfortunate death (bad death) whereas red lanterns are used for the elderly dead who died of old age (a good death).
(NB. this is in Chinese-Malay culture, not sure about Chinese-chinese, or other cultural threads).
As mentioned by a previous poster, all this is all what is usually described as 'Daoism' (folk daoism i guess) by my relatives, something like a mixture of Buddhism, Confucionism, Daoism and Chinese folk religion.