Ghost month occurs every year on the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is believed culturally and spiritually amongst Chinese people (though most Asians hold a similar tradition) to be the time when the gateway between the heaven, hell and the living world are opened. Perhaps the most well known western counterpart to ghost month would be Samhain (the pagan inspiration for Halloween) where it is believed the borders between the mortal realm and the spiritual realm became the most transparent.
Though this may sound sinister, the main reason this month is observed is to honour our ancestors and pay tribute to the lost or wayward souls in the world.
The main time that homage is paid to past relatives and ancestors is on the fifteenth day of the seventh month which is considered ghost day. During this time a feast is prepared (often containing the favourite foods of the deceased) and the spirits of ancestors are invited to partake of a meal in the family home. This is done by lighting incense and allowing the incense stick to burn completely at which point the host will “invite” the spirits of the ancestors to leave the home peacefully. Once the ritual is complete, the living family will sit down and eat the food that was prepared for the ancestors; nothing is wasted.
Similar offerings are made on the street for wayward spirits that may not know they have passed or do not having anyone still living to honour them. These are generally known as hungry ghost and are believed to bring bad luck to those they latch on to. Offerings of food placed on shrines along the street are believed to satisfy these spirits and allow them to move on peacefully.
Many people will often move to a purely vegetarian diet during ghost month while others will only consume vegetarian food on select days. This reflects upon the Buddhist idea that taking a life for nourishment is incorrect and since the spiritual root of the festival has immensely strong ties with Buddhism and Daoism – many people follow this rule.
Some classical text recommend that children, the elderly, fail individuals or those sensitive to spiritual energy should not remain outside after dark during ghost month as some of the aforementioned wayward spirits may seek to feed off their life force or cause them harm. Blessed talisman and charms may be purchased to help ward off these attacks, they can be found at any temple or Buddhist supply shop.
In summary, Ghost month – especially ghost day, is a time for family. To remember those that have passed and those that sacrificed so that we can be where we are now. Respect should be paid to ancestors and even if you do not share the culture or spiritual belief, please understand it is a solemn event for millions of people.