What Is Diwali? How One Indian-American Family Celebrates.

published Oct 30, 2016
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(Image credit: Anastasia Nurullina/Getty Images)

While many people are still eating their way through their Halloween candy and starting to think about Thanksgiving, my family and I are focused on another holiday: Diwali. Typically celebrated between mid-October and mid-November, depending on the phases of the moon, this year it falls on November 7.

(Image credit: Rudri Patel)

What Is Diwali?

The annual celebration, which translates as “festival of lights,” is one of the most important in Indian culture. It is a holiday about food, family, and new beginnings. It lasts five days and ends with the start of the Hindu New Year.

I remember my first (and only) Diwali in India well: As a young girl I parted the curtains, eager to look out the window, trying to absorb every minute. The bright light of the small candles illuminated the grey streets. Saffron and cinnamon lingered in the air. Everywhere I looked, people exchanged deep embraces and heartfelt greetings.

In my American home, I try to recreate some of this magic. While we may live thousands of miles away from India, and while my daughter has never visited India, we are able to recreate certain traditions in America. I might not necessarily follow every ritual like my relatives in India or even my parents, but I believe I capture the essence of the holiday. Years from now, my hope is that our daughter will carry out her interpretation of Diwali.

(Image credit: Rudri Patel)

How We Celebrate Diwali: Rangoli Artwork

One of my favorite parts of celebrating Diwali is creating a rangoli for our courtyard. A rangoli is a colorful floor pattern, usually made near the entrance of the house to welcome guests, and often depicting geometric shapes, deities, or flowers.

It’s a tradition my mom started in our home in Texas. She drew an intricate design, a diya or oil lamp, surrounded by flower petals to signify good luck. Then we’d fill the sketched design with colored lentils.

Now my 10-year-old daughter loves brainstorming various patterns to draw, and decorates the sketch with bright red, green, purple, and pink sand. In past years, she’s been inspired by the rangoli designs at our local temple.

Every single time I bear witness to one of these beautiful patterns, it fills me with the nostalgia of the past and a comfort that I can thread this part of my past to present day.

(Image credit: Rudri Patel)

How We Celebrate Diwali: Dresses and Dancing

When I was a little girl, every year my mom would don a new sari she bought just for Diwali. The fabrics varied from silk to chiffon and were embellished with intricate glitter or hand-stitched golden thread. She also bought new clothes for our entire family, and we couldn’t wear these particular outfits until the appointed day.

I’ve tried to maintain this tradition as much as possible. On Diwali, we dress in saris or a salwar-kameez (sort of a fancy suit) and drive down to the local temple. We meet with friends and admire the revelry around us. It’s a chance to connect with community, to greet one another with hugs, and to feel the texture of our Indian roots.

In an effort to stay close to our heritage and connect with our Indian culture, my daughter also participates in a Diwali show, where she dances to classical tunes and Bollywood music. She’s learning the art of garba, bhangra, and raas — variations of dances from different parts of India.

How We Celebrate Diwali: Gifts

Another Diwali tradition? Envelopes filled with money. It’s a tradition to bestow gifts on loved ones to commemorate the light and start the year with good wishes. Before I received my gift, as a sign of respect I bowed my head, kneeled, and touched the feet of my parents. My mother and father would pat my back and then in the next instant I’d receive the coveted gift.

It’s a tradition I’ve continued with my daughter. We attend the festivities at our temple and she pays respects to the deities, as well as to my husband and me. We also give her a gift to mark the auspiciousness of the day and hug her in a deep embrace. She smiles with glee because she’s looking forward to spending her “treasure.”

How We Celebrate Diwali: Food

Of course, no Diwali celebration is complete without food! A traditional meal centers on a thali, a full plate of sweet and savory foods. During my childhood, my mom spent a full month preparing Indian snacks to commemorate the auspicious season.

I’d look forward to coming home after school to serve as her official taste-tester. In the kitchen, the scent of milk and rose essence blended together. Some days we’d smell the fresh grinding of curry masala.

I must admit I am not an accomplished cook like my mom, but on Diwali I make a traditional meal of lentils, veggies, and roti. Mithai, the sweets, are the best part of the meal. In the past I’ve made carrot halwa or we’ve headed to the local restaurant to celebrate with kulfi, an ice cream infused with Indian nuts and spices.