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  • When is the Hungry Ghost Festival in 2023?
  • What is the meaning behind the Hungry Ghost Festival?
  • How to celebrate Ghost Month
  • What to avoid during Ghost Month

While some refer to it as "Chinese Halloween," the Hungry Ghost Festival is more than just a time for spooky festivities. While the annual celebration does include some resemblance to Halloween, it shares a closer affinity with traditions like Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico, Pchum Ben in Cambodia, or Sat Thai in Thailand.

Known as Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism (also spelled Daoism) and Yulanpen Festival in Buddhism, the month-long celebration kicks off at the start of the seventh lunar month of the year in the Chinese calendar. During the annual event, it's believed that spirits are allowed to break free from the afterlife and roam the earthly realm. To pay tribute to the dearly departed, Buddhists and Taoists celebrate by orchestrating ghost-feeding ceremonies, folding joss paper ingots and partaking in other meaningful cultural customs designed to ease the suffering of the dead and prevent mischievous encounters with restless spirits. It's a time for people reflect on the transient nature of life, express gratitude to their ancestors, and reinforce familial bonds.

Whether you're looking for ways to celebrate with your own family or are simply hoping to deepen your understanding of this enchanting and reverent annual celebration, here's everything you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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When is the Hungry Ghost Festival in 2023?

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the entire seventh month of the year is known as "Ghost Month." In 2023, according to the Gregorian calendar, that means Ghost Month will start around August 16 and end around September 14.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, or "Ghost Day," is always celebrated on the 15th night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. That means, in 2023, the date of Ghost Day is Wednesday, August 30.

What is the meaning behind the Hungry Ghost Festival?

Ghost Month is an annual event celebrated primarily by Chinese communities in Asian countries including China, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and Indonesia. It holds significant cultural and religious importance, and typically falls in July, August or September.

According to traditional beliefs, during this month, the gates of the afterlife are opened and the spirits of ancestors return to walk amongst the living. These wandering spirits are referred to as "hungry ghosts," since they're believed to be restless and in need of appeasement. The festival aims to honor and respect these spirits through various rituals, performances and offerings. "The Ghost Festival popular in Asian traditions is a unique way of answering our questions about death through reconnecting with the dead and their past," says Dr. Jiang Wu, an East Asian Studies professor at the University of Arizona.

One significant aspect of the festival is the practice of offering food and material possessions, like money, to the spirits. It is believed that these offerings provide comfort and sustenance to the hungry ghosts, ensuring their well-being and preventing them from causing mischief or misfortune. The festival also sees communities engage in vibrant cultural festivities and rituals dedicated to honoring one's lineage and preserving family traditions. "These rituals and ceremonies are often facilitated by Buddhist monks or Daoist priests to release the 'ghosts' of their ancestors from the suffering in hells and feed them with the symbolic food of compassion," Dr. Wu explains.

How to celebrate Ghost Month

Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations and ceremonies vary from region to region. However, there are some common practices across communities. For example, on Ghost Day, "tablets of the diseased ancestors and relatives must be displayed, and rituals of venerations must be performed," according to Dr. Wu. Likewise, popular ritual operas, such as the Buddhist legend of Mulian releasing his mother from hell, are often staged.

As night falls, it's also customary to burn paper money commonly known as joss paper, along with other paper offerings for the deceased. "Paper lanterns will also be released in rivers and lakes during the night to guide the spirit of their ancestors to return to home," Dr. Wu explains. "However, the general atmosphere today is not spooky or horrifying. Rather, it has gradually evolved into a celebration of family continuity and community solidarity."

Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett, founder of Miss Panda Chinese and author of First Mandarin Sounds, echoes this sentiment, adding, "In Chinese culture, Ghost Month is a cultural event — it's about paying respect to deceased family members and the deceased with no families. The festival centers around showing respect, instead of being solely perceived as a celebration, as some may think outside of the Chinese community."

Consider the following meaningful ways to pay homage to your family and ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival:

1. Fold joss paper ingots

    hungry ghost festival celebrations joss paper ingots
    simonlong//Getty Images

    In addition to burning paper money, it’s common practice to fold joss paper sheets into the shape of gold ingots, a.k.a. gold bars, which were used as currency in ancient China. It's a fun and easy craft for the whole family — just buy some joss paper sheets and check out a joss paper ingot folding tutorial online to get started.

    2. Make floating lanterns

    hungry ghost festival celebrations floating lanterns
    Ivan//Getty Images

    It's a tradition to float paper lanterns down a river as a way to lead spirits home during the Hungry Ghost Festival. To make your own, you'll need string, coated paper plates, and tissue paper, as well as a paper lantern tutorial to show you how it's done.

    3. Create butterfly puppets

    hungry ghost festival celebrations paper butteflies
    Orientfootage//Getty Images

    According to legend, insects like butterflies, moths, and grasshoppers are believed to be the spirits of ancestors returning for a visit. Pay tribute to these gentle creatures by having your kids create butterfly puppets using craft paper and Popsicle sticks.

    4. Hang orange decorations.

    hungry ghost festival celebrations hanging citrus craft
    Constantine Johnny//Getty Images

    In Chinese culture, oranges symbolize good luck and wealth and they're often part of the offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Spruce up your home for the holiday by hanging DIY citrus fruit decorations made from paper and yarn.

    5. Cook up some sticky rice dumplings.

    hungry ghost festival celebrations peng kway
    Long Tram//Getty Images

    Teochew png kueh, savory dumplings filled with stir-fried rice, peanuts, garlic, shallots, and more, are often associated with Hungry Ghost festivities. Traditionally dyed in an auspicious pink hue, these dumplings symbolize good fortune and can be presented as offerings to ancestors.

    6. Attend community celebrations and performances.

    hungry ghost festival celebrations community performances
    PHILIP FONG//Getty Images

    Communities will typically stage operas and other types of performances throughout Ghost Month. Just make sure to leave the front row empty, as that row is typically reserved for spirits.

    7. Enjoy a family dinner together.

    hungry ghost festival celebrations enjoy a family dinner
    Robertus Pudyanto//Getty Images

    Like many traditional Chinese holidays, the Hungry Ghost festivities may include a family dinner. However, unlike other holidays, the focus is less on the symbolism of the food and more about feeding ancestors. Simply enjoying a family meal is a great way to pay tribute (just make sure you set an extra place or two at the table for the departed).

    8. Perform an appeasement ceremony.

    hungry ghost festival celebrations appeasement ceremony
    SOPA Images//Getty Images

    It's tradition to set up a makeshift altar outdoors in order to display offerings for passing ghosts. In addition to joss paper, joss sticks, and incense, offerings can include uncooked rice, peanuts, candies, raw noodles, fruit, and even bags of salt and sugar. Small cups of tea and rice wine are also appreciated.

    What to avoid during Ghost Month

    While the holiday revolves around many customs designed to display filial piety, there are also activities and practices that are considered taboo, as a way to show respect to the spirits and avoid attracting negative energy. Traditionally, some of the most common Hungry Ghost Festival taboos include:

    • Swimming in rivers or going near bodies of water
    • Holding weddings or other large parties that involve loud music
    • Taking photographs or recording videos at night
    • Moving into or buying a new home
    • Disturbing or stepping on offerings
    • Hanging clothes outside at night
    • Watching scary movies

    While some take these Ghost Month don'ts to heart, "the young generation in Chinese society no longer takes it seriously," according to Hsiung-Blodgett. Similarly, adherence may vary among different regions. If you are in doubt or wish to observe local customs, it's best to consult with local communities or seek guidance from those familiar with the traditions of the specific region.

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    Corinne Sullivan

    Corinne Sullivan is an Editor at Cosmopolitan, where she covers a variety of beats, including lifestyle, entertainment, relationships, shopping, and more. She can tell you everything you need to know about the love lives of A-listers, the coziest bedsheets, and the sex toys actually worth your $$$. She is also the author of the 2018 novel Indecent. Follow her on Instagram for cute pics of her pup and bébé.