August: When lost spirits roam and rites of salvation

Halloween is in November but there is another month that is associated with “ghosts”. In several Asian cultures, August is also called the Hungry Ghost Month – the seventh lunar month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. On the 15th lunar day of this month, this Buddhist-Taoist festival is celebrated. That means, this year, it is celebrated on 22 August. Meanwhile, the ghost month (this year) officially starts on 8 August and ends 6 September.

The hungry ghosts are believed to be the spirits of those who suffered heinous deaths or who committed crimes such as murder, robbery, lasciviousness and other malevolent acts during their lifetime. As I read, they are also the souls of ancestors who, after their death,  have been forgotten by living relatives (Reminds me of Mexico’s Dia del Muertos or Day of the Dead); or have not been given proper burial rites. On the first day of the ghost month, it is believed that the “gates of hell” are unlatched to allow these restless spirits to wander on the physical plane. The spirits may visit their relatives during this time. Also, restless ghosts or dark spirits are believed to cause harm to human lives and properties. That is why they must be appeased or satiated by offerings of food and other paper craft replica (also called joss paper) of material goods such as car, house, money, or appliances, which are burnt.

Avoiding the Hungry Ghosts; wishing for luck

The last day of the ghost month, which falls on the 22nd, is regarded as the day when spirits return to the “underworld” and the Gates of Hell are shut again.

Some countries in Asia including Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines similarly observe the Hungry Ghost Month with rituals.

<blockquote>Christian mythology has Grigori, a form of hungry ghost, and which is mentioned in the Book of Enoch. The Grigori and its offsprings – borne from the former’s union with a human, roam the earth in endless pursuit of food (Read: Hungry ghosts, their history and origin)</blockquote>

Seng Guan Temple in Manila

I remember those times when I would visit the Seng Guan Temple near Divisoria to partake in the ghost festival. We would burn incense and make wishes on the huge Buddha altars – not quite what the occasion is for!

There was also this one shop I used to frequent along that street, which sold assorted dried fruits in a round plastic container. The owner said that those were used for offerings for the dead or “alay”. But I would eat them because they were delicious (salty and sweet, like pickles) and cheap.

Several activities that are believed to attract the “hungry ghosts” (to prey on the living) are prohibited during the ghost month. For example, night-time outdoor activities such as camping, swimming,  or going near bodies of water; hanging clothes  to dry at night; donning red or black clothes and black nail polish, and so on. Major purchases such as new car or relocating to a new home or renovating the home are discouraged during this time. 

I read that since the pandemic and large gatherings are prohibited, some organisations have held the event online. Also, with the increasing awareness on climate change, a Quezon City-based organisation, the Tzu Chi Foundation led by its founder Master Cheng Yen has tweaked certain practices, including burning spirit money, saying that it would only contribute to carbon emissions.

(Read: Study on Annual air pollution caused by the Hungry Ghost Festival)

The founder was quoted to have said that “respecting one’s faith comes from our heart, and is not shown by burning ‘spirit money’ which only causes air pollution.” (Source: Changing superstitious beliefs during ghost month)

An inauspicious month

Meanwhile, this August festival has another dark side as it has been attributed to accidents, material losses, robbery and other similar mishaps.

In the Philippines, although predominantly a Christian country, certain East Asian traditions are being observed even by non-Chinese/non-Buddhist individuals. I think it is because Filipinos, in general, believe in luck or “swerte”,  and the omens and practices related to these topics are applied to different facets of their lives, particularly in business, family and money. 

On the other hand, Filipino folks  regard August as a month when money is tight or resources become scarce. My mom would refer to August as “kawit ang palakol – an expression that translates to “the ax (palakol) is poised and about to fall (Source: Classes and class relations in a Philippine Village  )”. That reputation of August has, thus, created a mind-set of anxiety about money.  August is also considered an inauspicious month for getting married or starting new endeavours for they will not last.

Light side of August: Birthday and Marian month

With due respect to cultural traditions, August is not only about ghosts or financial setbacks. There is so much more positive to celebrate about August. First of all, if your birthday falls on August, it means:

*You exude charisma and confidence that can make you popular or even rise to fame!</li>

*You are smart and can outwit most people easily.</li>

*You are determined (although to the extent of being stubborn).</li>

*You have that air of royalty in you (Hello, Leos!) and, admit it or not, like to be admired.</li>

*Your loyalty and leadership qualities are among your best assets.</li>

August is also a Marian month, as September and October are also months dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  August celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Heart month. The celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 15th of August dates back to the fifth century of the Eastern Church, which connoted the death anniversary of the Blessed Mother. It was in the seventh century that the Western Church dedicated the day to celebrate not only her demise, but her assumption – body and soul – into heaven.


Unlike how most regular traditions are celebrated, Marian festivities are solemn, yet powerful – one may attend a mass and pray the rosary – which is akin to offering the Blessed Mother a spiritual bouquet, crown or garland of roses (Additional reading: History of the term Rosary), or do intentional acts of charity.

Etymologically speaking,  Rosary or Rosarium (Source: Etymology of the word Rosary)  has linkage to pre-Christian traditions, which celebrated rose festivals. Even then, roses had been revered flowers for significant occasions.  The spring festival of the Roman Empire called Rosalia (or Rosatio) memorialised the dead.

By the way, the Rosary has prayers that pertain to the salvation of souls:

“[Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners]…Now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”


“[Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit]…Now , and at the hour of our death, Amen.”


“[Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell]… And bring all souls to heaven, especially those who are in need of Your Mercy, Amen.”

The month has several feasts to celebrate the Blessed Mother’s love and devotion for humanity, including Our Lady of the Angels (August 2), Our Lady of the Snows (August 5), Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners (August 15),

August 22  is the feast of the Queenship of Mary. This remembrance was decreed by Pope Pius XII Oct. 11, 1954, in his encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam (“To the Queen of Heaven”). The feast magnifies how Mary is an instrument for salvation- both of the dead and the living. Her oneness with Christ, the son and Her holy obedience to God, the Father makes her the Queen of boundless mercy and grace. She intercedes for us as we seek God’s assistance, mercy and forebearance? Her maternal love, compassion and protection are our spirits’ ultimate comfort zone.

Some might say that these are iconoclastic or anti-Christian practices, but what is essential is the intention to strengthen one’s connection to the Divine Source and one’s spiritual compassion for humankind through faith and devotion.


PRAYER: Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen)

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!

V- Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God
R- That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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