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What to do during the The Hungry Ghost Festival [中元節 (zhōng yuán jié) / 七月半 (qī yuè bàn) / 孟蘭節 (mèng lán jié)]?

Written by: Darwyn Albert Tanya Mendoza | 吳永發

The Ghost Month (鬼月 guǐ yuè) is a month full of inauspicious dates that all should be careful of, which takes place every 7th lunar month (農曆七月).  Unlike the Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明節 qīng míng jié) or All Saints’/ Souls’ Day (萬聖節 wàn shèng jié / 萬靈節 wàn líng jié) where we visit the departed, during the Ghost Month, they visit the living and observe us for an entire month.  It is important to remember the family and tradition that we have had and always remember one’s roots, cherish your relationships by accompanying them for a while, they are the reason why you are in this world, thus giving some time for them won’t hurt.

Traditionally, Chinoys have been observing ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival,’ which occurs on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month (農曆七月十五日), which is considered to be the strongest day of the Ghost Month.  The Ghost Month for the year 2023 begins on August 16 and ends on September 14.  The Hungry Ghost Festival this year takes place on August 30, 2023 (Wednesday).  Significant events such as Tinghun (Chinese Engagement), wedding, starting a new business, investing, opening bank accounts, signing contracts, major surgical operations, construction and other major life decisions are to be avoided.  It is believed that on the first day of Ghost month, gates of the underworld opens and the spirits are free to wander the earth.  Two weeks after they roam, they become hungry, thus a need for us, the living to use our filial piety to the max, by offering and remembering them or else they get angry and can cause misfortune.

Some rules Chinoys should follow during the Hungry Ghost Festival itself on August 30:

  1. Offerings are usually done in front of the portraits of the deceased (遺像 yí xiàng) in one’s house, however some make their offerings at the temple through the ancestor’s spirit tablet (木主 mù zhǔ ; Hokkien: “Bok Tsu”).

In a scenario of my family’s altar at home (photo taken in 2021), we lit white candles and yellow incense (middle altar) for both my Angkong (passed away in April 2021) and Amah, even if my Amah passed away back in 2008 (explanation on numbers 7 to 9 below).

Ancestral altar at our home

Ancestral tablet (木主 mù zhǔ ; Hokkien: “Bok Tsu”) of my Angkong and Amah amongst many at Thousand Buddha Temple (普濟禪寺) at Barangay Santo Domingo, Quezon City

       2. For ancestors who passed away recently or less than two years, offerings should be done the day before the festival itself, on the morning of August 29, 2023.

        3. For ancestors who passed away for more than two years, offerings must be made in the morning of August 30, 2023, the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival itself.

         4. Offerings should have at least the usual 3 domestic animals (三牲 sān shēng ; 

Hokkien: “Sam Heng”): (1) Chicken (with head and legs) , (2) Whole Fish ,and (3) Pork (liempo or pata will do), other offerings would depend upon what the deceased favors when they were still living, except for beef and Misua (麵線 miàn xiàn) or birthday noodles (a no-no since this is to be served only for birthdays / happy celebrations).  If there are noodles to be offered, Bihon (米粉 mǐ fěn) or Sotanghon (山東粉 shān dōng fěn) is acceptable.  Round fruits in odd numbers (3 of a kind, 5 of a kind, etc.) for good luck. 

Sample of 三牲 [Photo courtesy of Golden Stone Restaurant (石獅綠島酒樓), located at 933 Fernandez corner Ongpin Street, Santa Cruz, Manila].

    5. Use even number of incense / joss sticks for the deceased (two sticks per ancestor).  Use three maroon incense / joss sticks for each of the Gods (土地公tǔ dì gong (Lord of the Land) 丶觀音媽guān yīn mā (Goddess of Mercy), etc.).

觀音媽 (guān yīn mā) and 土地公 (tǔ dì gong) at our home.

6. Light incense and red candles for the Gods first before the ancestors.

       7. Usage for incense:

a. Yellow – For ancestors who passed away who have not yet commemorated two years (third year) of passing.

       b. Maroon – For ancestors who have commemorated two years (third year) of passing already.  There are some cases where if the deceased has already reached a hundred years old, maroon incense may be lit even if they just recently passed away.

* In some cases if one spouse has already been deceased for more than two years and the other spouse just passed away, lit 4 yellow incense for both deceased spouses (same case for my Angkong and Amah in number 1).

     8. Usage for candles:

a. White – For ancestors who passed away less than a year.

b. Yellow – For ancestors who passed away a year already.

c. Red – For ancestors who have commemorated two years (third year) of passing already.  The same as usage for incense, if the deceased has already reached a hundred years old, red candles may be lit even if they just recently passed away.

*Same as above, if one spouse has already been deceased for more than two years and the other spouse just passed away, lit a pair of white candles (same case for my Angkong and Amah in number 1).

     9. Usage of Joss Paper / Ghost Money (冥紙 míng zhǐ) (Some families like in my case stamp the names of the deceased on the joss paper so they won’t get lost or stolen by jealous ghosts). 

       a. Silver (小銀 xiǎo yín ;  Hokkien: “Gun”) – For ancestors who passed away less than a year. 

     b. Plain Gold (刈金 yì jīn ; Hokkien: “Kim”) –  For ancestors who have commemorated two years (third year) of passing already.

      c. Gold (with three-person print, 壽金shòu jīn ; Hokkien: “Kim”) – For the Gods and Goddesses.

*After which, some may fold the joss paper into a boat shaped figure, similar to that of an ingot (元寶 yuán bǎo) (see below photo).  Otherwise, some just simply fold into half then burn the joss paper.

*It is also better to have spare plain gold joss paper (without name of the deceased) for your ancestor to share the wealth with. 😁

Joss paper folded into ingot or boat-shape with banknotes.

   10. Along with gold / silver joss papers, descendants must also burn joss papers with drawings of furniture, appliances, clothes, and other necessities in the afterlife. (Some also stamp the name of ancestor on the side).

   11. Make “Pwa-pwe” by throwing the Moon blocks (筊杯jiǎo bēi) to the floor to ask the ancestors if they are done with their feast, you may do so if the incense is  already about half of its size.  If the Pwa-Pwe comes out as “No” / “Maybe”, try for a few more minutes.  If it comes out as “Yes”, burn first the joss paper of the gods, followed by the joss paper of the deceased.

   12. It doesn’t stop there, in the afternoon of the Hungry Ghost Festival, we also have our filial duty for the lost souls (好兄弟hǎo xiōng dì ; Hokkien: “Ho Hia Ti”).  In this case, the usual 3 domestic animals (三牲sān shēng, Hokkien: “Sam Heng”) is enough and it is done at one’s house facing the gate at home or at one’s tiam lai (store).  The gate of the house is especially significant, because it is the point of entry for the souls.  Each food item must be accompanied by a stick of maroon colored incense.

A specific type of joss paper called kwakim, which is wrapped in newspaper, is also burned for the lost souls.  In order to help guide them, a small table for the earth god, 土地公 (toh-ti-kong) should be placed on the right side of the offerings for display. 

Sample offerings for the Lost Souls (好兄弟hǎo xiōng dì ; Hokkien: “Ho Hia Ti”) at our garage.

13. It is important not to disturb the altar and table of food offerings once incense has been lit as the spirits might get offended.  Clean up the ancestor’s altar after burning all the joss paper and enjoy the food that has been offered for good luck.

Personal Note: Although it would be a common misconception that doing these rituals, such as ancestor worship, would contradict my religion of being a Christian, my faith has always been with the one true God; ancestor worship for me would be a manner of love and showing respect to my roots, which also is in accordance to a tradition that matters to me most.

We hope this guide was helpful to you! 😊

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