Summer Moon Festivals

Two Eastern summer Moon festivals share a common theme of marking those who have departed.

In the Chinese Moon calendar, on the 14th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Gates of Hell open, and ghosts pour forth from the Nine Darknesses into the sunlit world. This Hungry Moon is the reason for Hungry Moon festivals and traditions.To placate the dead, Hell Money (fake paper money) is burned, offerings are made, and paper boats and floating lanterns are set out to give direction to wayward spirits.

Though many spirits simply seek out the comforts of their former homes and the company of their loved ones, there are some rancorous spirits also roam the streets, seeking revenge on those who have wronged them, before and after their deaths.

Offerings of ginger candy, sugar cane, smoky vanilla and rice wine might appease the ghosts who give off their own scent of white sandalwood, ho wood, ti, white grapefruit, crystalline musk and aloe.

These hungry ghosts are often thought to be lost or disturbed souls. Unlike normal spirits, a hungry ghost is thought to have been greedy in life or to have been forgotten by his or her descendants.

In some traditions, these ghosts are the spirits of those who have died tragically, violently, or wrongfully. They are hungry during the time of the seventh moon to seek revenge against those who have wronged them.

On the seventh lunar month, hungry ghosts are free to actively haunt or harass the living for up to a month-long period.

There is a 2008 film, Seventh Moon, which follows an American newlywed couple as they face the horrors of the seventh lunar moon of Chinese myth. The filmmaker Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) used many of the actual legends and much of the folklore surrounding the seventh moon and the Hungry Ghost Festival, the exotic locales of rural China, and his own interpretations of the Hungry Ghost.

Lanterns floating in Hawaii

In Japan, this month brings Obon, the 3-day Festival of Lanterns. This Buddhist and Shinto celebration honors the dead, and homes, altars, shrines and tombs are cleaned and decorated. Gardens are hung with lanterns to light the way of the dead so that they can join their families for the festival.

Obon was originally celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Obon celebrations vary in different parts of the world. In many regions of Japan, Obon is celebrated from August 13 to 16. In some areas in Tokyo, Obon is celebrated around July 15th, and it is still celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar in many areas in Okinawa.

Obon (also just Bon) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed but has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. The spirits of those ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

In the United States, the “Bon season” is an important part of the present-day culture and life of Hawaii. Bon Odori festivals are also celebrated in North America, particularly by Japanese-Americans or Japanese-Canadians affiliated with Buddhist temples and organizations. Buddhist Churches of America temples in the U.S. typically celebrate Bon Odori with both religious Obon observances and traditional Bon Odori dancing.

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