Diwali, also known as the Hindu festival of lights, is held every year to celebrate the victory of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The celebration usually lasts five days, during which time homes, stores and offices are all kept brightly lit. Diwali’s most important day coincides with the darkest night in India during Kartika, the Hindi month that’s roughly equivalent to late October/early November.
This year, Diwali Day falls on October 27th.
Diwali in India
Diwali has been celebrated in India for thousands of years and it’s a time of family feasts and offerings to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Different regions observe different rituals, but all look forward to Diwali as a time of sharing, thanksgiving and celebration.
On the first day of Diwali, many Hindus clean their homes and set up oil lamps that will remain burning for the rest of the week. It’s a bit like the North American version of spring cleaning - a day to renovate, decorate and refresh the home.
The second day of Diwali is a time to pray for ancestors who have passed away, visit friends and family, and exchange small gifts. It’s also the time many families stock up on Diwali treats or make their own sweets and delicacies in preparation for the next day.
The third day is the main event when the whole country glows with light. Lanterns are set adrift in the rivers, lamps line the sidewalks, and families gather to give gifts and offer prayers for prosperity and happiness in the coming year. Fireworks blaze across the night sky and the noise and light symbolize a communal farewell to the souls of the departed.
Many Hindu communities celebrate the ties between husbands and wives on the fourth day of Diwali, and many newly married couples will receive gifts from their families. The fifth and final day similarly celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters, with more feasting and gift-giving.
Throughout Diwali, Indians will spend a significant amount of their income on food and gifts, much as North Americans do over Christmas. Music and dance feature prominently in the celebrations as relationships and the bonds of community are renewed.
Diwali in the U.S.A
President George W. Bush was the first to celebrate Diwali in the White House, and the U.S. Congress officially recognized the festival in 2007. In recent years, Diwali is becoming a more common event in communities across America and has been promoted by people with an Indian heritage as a way for their friends, neighbors and colleagues to learn more about their culture and traditions.
Even Disney is getting in on the act, with Diwali being featured in the Californian park’s “Festival of Holidays”. San Antonio, Texas has been hosting a huge Diwali Day for the last ten years and has a sister-city relationship with Chennai in India. The massive celebrations include traditional fireworks, dancing, food and music that are all designed to mirror the same events taking place on the other side of the world.
Diwali Day has been celebrated in Times Square since 2013, but smaller events can be found right across the country from Seattle to Queens. Museums are increasingly mounting special exhibitions on Indian art, history and culture while restaurants are offering specially themed Diwali menus. Whether it’s Bollywood dancing or henna tattoos, Americans are slowly warming to the festival of lights.
So, light a lamp on October 27th and join this increasingly international celebration. Good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance. Most people would agree we could all use a little more Diwali in our lives!