When you think "Festival of Lights," most likely the first thing that comes to mind is Hanukkah. But if you walk around today seeing a bunch of candles lit up in the windows, with people celebrating the "Festival of Lights," it's not that Hanukkah has moved up a month and no one told you about it.
Lighting candles and diyas (oil lamps) is a tradition for Diwali (pronounced Divali), the most important festival of the year for Hindus, and many Hindu, Jain, and Sikh families are getting together today to celebrate.
The festival, aka "Indian New Year," is celebrated for five continuous days. Along with lighting up candles, people eat, party, pray, and exchange gifts and sweets.
Keep reading so you can avoid being like Michael Scott from The Office, where in one episode, Kelly invites her coworkers to a Diwali celebration, and he thinks it's the Indian version of Halloween.
Growing up, my three best friends were Indian (whom I still talk to much too often) and they helped me learn how they celebrate Diwali. That's me all the way on the left. And I can't apologize enough for the d-bags in the background, but this is the most recent photo I have of the four of us together! Here are a few of their fondest memories:
Pallavi (second from the right): I would say my most fond memory of Diwali is playing with sparklers. There were always big celebrations at our local temple and all of the children were given their own box of sparkles to light -- which make the "festival of lights" that much more fun!
Afterwards, we would have a big dinner where they always gave kids cupcakes for dessert! Sure, it wasn't very "traditionally" Indian ... but I looked forward to that day every year because it was such a treat! As we grew older, we used Diwali as a time to clean our house, make our favorite Indian desserts and exchange gifts with family.
Divya (far right): One fun memory I have is getting together and painting diyas (candles that you light on Diwali). We sat around for hours with paint and these plain diyas, and we each painted about 5 of them. It was a fun thing to do together.
Also, at home we would spend all day getting our puja (prayer) room ready and clean. We would clean and polish all the murtis (statue of indian gods in our prayer room), and we'd buy them all bright new shiny Indian clothes and dress them up in preparation for prayers that night. We would decorate the whole house with lights (yeah, Christmas lights haha). And leave all the lights on in the house. Then, of course, we'd all enjoy a big dinner!
Priya (second from the left): Every year in Pittsburgh, there's a huge Diwali dinner where most of the Indian community comes to celebrate. Some of my favorite memories are getting super dressed up for it and being really excited to see my friends who I hadn't seen in a while. There was always fantastic food, music, and dancing all night. We went for as long as I can remember and it was a great way to celebrate.
Diwali starts today and is an official holiday in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore, and Fiji. There are many variations of the traditions and stories depending on religion and region -- for example, southern Indians call the holiday Deepavali, while northern Indians call it Diwali.
But the main story, according to the Ramayana, is Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama from his 14-year exile with Sita and Lakshman after killing the Ravan, a demon king. The people of Ayodhya illuminated the kingdom with diyas and fireworks to celebrate his return.
Pretty cool, huh? Go light up some candles and party this weekend in celebration of the Festival of Lights!
Do you know anyone who celebrates Diwali? Have you seen the episode of The Office that's based on the holiday?