Diwali (pronounced dih-vaa-lee) is one of the most widely celebrated festivals on the Hindu calendar, observed in late October or early November across India and the Indian diaspora by more than 1 billion people. While it shares some customs and traditions (lights, gifts, overeating!) with holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, Diwali is a Hindu celebration that dates back thousands of years. The holiday is also observed by Sikhs and Jains. And in India, Muslims and other non-Hindus may celebrate Diwali, just as non-Christians in the U.S. may celebrate Christmas.
Origins of Diwali
The name Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Deepavali meaning "row of lighted lamps," which is why Diwali is often called the Hindu "Festival of Lights." There are two sacred legends associated with Diwali that celebrate the victory of good over evil, and knowledge over negative qualities like anger, greed and fear.
The first legend, native to Northern India, is the story of Rama, a beloved prince who was banished from his kingdom along with his wife Sita by a jealous stepmother (it's always the stepmother). During his 14-year exile, Rama battled a demon king who kidnapped Sita. When the couple finally returned triumphantly to their kingdom, the people celebrated by lighting rows of earthen oil lamps.
The second legend, better known in Southern India, concerns Narkasura, the son of Mother Earth, who befriends a demon and becomes evil. After Narkasura invades kingdom after kingdom, the people cry out to Lord Krishna, who descends to defeat the evil Narkasura and restore peace to Earth.
In addition to celebrating these historic victories, Diwali is a time to welcome the goddess Lakshmi into the home. Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity, abundance and well-being, and part of Diwali is dedicated to worshipping her and receiving her blessings for the coming year.
In the West, Diwali lands on a different date each year because it's based on the lunar calendar. In India, the holiday always falls on the 15th of Kartik, the first month of the Hindu lunar calendar. The date corresponds with the first new moon of the lunar New Year, a normally dark night that's filled with light as the world celebrates Diwali.
A Month of Frenzy, Food and Family
While Diwali itself is a five-day celebration — the third day, Oct. 27 in 2019, is the climax — the anticipation and run-up to Diwali can last a full month. In that way, it's not unlike the month(s)-long countdown to Christmas.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, grew up in the United States and remembers the mixture of excitement and dread that accompanied every Diwali season.
"There's a frenzy that leads up to Diwali," says Shukla, who as a kid wasn't a fan of the pre-Diwali traditional of cleaning the house from top to bottom to welcome Lakshmi. And while she adored all of the special Diwali snacks and sweets, she didn't understand why the family had to start cooking weeks before the holiday began.
But Shukla will never forget the pride her parents felt in preserving the culinary and cultural traditions of their home state of Gujarat, or the warm feelings of family and community when Diwali finally arrived.
"It was all worth it," says Shukla, "just knowing that our doors would be open, that we'd essentially host open houses where friends and family would visit and eat, and that we would be doing the same at their houses."
It's Not 'Hindu Hanukkah'
Since it's called the "Festival of Lights," it's tempting to describe Diwali as a Hindu version of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that also falls around Christmas. And Shukla admits that even Hindus sometimes use Hanukkah as a useful starting point for a conversation about Diwali.
"In some sense, all of these festivals at a very core level are celebrating these positive values of righteousness or goodness," says Shukla.
But the lamp-lighting aspect of Diwali isn't really the same as lighting the menorah on the eight nights of the Jewish holiday. While traditional oil lamps called diya are lit during Diwali, it's done more as a decoration than a religious ritual, and lights of all kinds are popular during Diwali, including strings of colorful holiday lights, sparklers and firecrackers.
The central ritual of Diwali is the Lakshmi Puja, a prayer offering made to the goddess Lakshmi on a small home altar. During the ceremony, grains, sweets, flowers and spices are presented to Lakshmi in return for her blessings of health and wealth. Since Diwali coincides with a new fiscal year in many parts of India, business owners will ask the goddess to bless their ledgers for a profitable new year.
Another beloved Diwali tradition is creating a colorfully patterned rangoli to welcome guests into your house. These creative floor decorations are made with colored powders or sand, spices, beans and lentils, and range from simple flower motifs to more intricate designs.
Diwali Foods and Gifts
"The two words that come to mind to describe Diwali foods are 'fried' and 'crunchy,'" says Shukla, whose favorite is an empanada-like treat called ghughra, which her mom still ships to her from California.
"Ghughra are these crescent-shaped pastries filled with sugar, coconut, cardamon, saffron, nuts and raisins," says Shukla. "They're deep-fried and crunchy and just so good. They are quintessentially Diwali."
Exchanging small gifts while visiting family and friends is part of the Diwali tradition, but Lakshmi isn't Santa Claus, insists Shukla, and Indian children don't wake up on Diwali morning to a pile of gifts.
That said, Diwali is the biggest shopping season of the year, with huge holiday sales on clothing and housewares at stores both in India and in larger Indian-American communities like Jackson Heights, New York, and San Jose, California.
Diwali in Diaspora
In India, Diwali is mostly observed among close family and friends, but in the Indian diaspora it's evolved into a community-wide celebration of Indian culture.
Shukla says that Hindu and Indian-American cultural organizations will organize large Diwali festivals to showcase and preserve traditional Indian performing arts.
"I remember my mom choreographing dances from Gujarat and teaching them to my cousins and I to perform at the local Diwali program," says Shukla.