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Celebrating Diwali in America

On the darkest night of the year, which normally falls during the first half of November, millions of Indians greet each other by shouting these two words: “Happy Diwali!”

Published: October 21, 2015 2:52 AM IST

By Chhaya Nene


Three years ago, Diwali was fast approaching. I had just moved to Los Angeles for graduate school and was scared that my beloved tradition of celebrating Diwali would be lost.

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Just a few months ago, I moved again. The fear of making new friends and finding people to celebrate this holiday with is ever present—but when I feel lost, I revisit the story of Diwali and remember that Diwali is what you make of it, with the people you choose to include in your celebrations.

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Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word “Deepavali,” which means “row of lights.” Many people have come to know the holiday as the Festival of Lights, but don’t truly understand what the holiday entails or symbolizes. Diwali is a spiritual, religious, and social holiday filled with food, new clothes, and a new start to life. It is considered the start of the New Year and a time when the primary significance of the holiday is to be aware of one’s “inner light.” The holiday lasts five days and honors many Hindu deities, including Ganesh (the elephant God) and Laxmi (the Goddess of wealth and prosperity), as well as the return of Lord Ram.

The story of Lord Ram’s return from Sri Lanka is one of the most beloved in Hindu mythology, and one many attribute to the celebration of Diwali. The story begins when the demon and king of Sri Lanka, Ravana, kidnapped Lord Ram’s wife, Sita. It took Ram several years and the help of both people and animals to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, after which Ram defeated Ravana and rescued Sita. Upon Ram’s return, the people of Ayodhya (a holy town in India known as Lord Ram’s birthplace) welcomed the couple by decorating their homes with small clay lamps. These lamps were also symbolic of the triumph of good versus evil—a theme that defines Diwali celebrations everywhere today.

Celebrations of the holiday include fireworks, worships, prayers, cleaning house (both mentally and physically) and my personal favorite, eating sweets. It is a special time where moods are joyous, spirits are warm, and the need to visit a dentist to check for cavities post-sweets is a must. The holiday is not exclusively for Hindus, but instead embraces and invites people of all faiths to shed worries, resolves conflicts and truly find the light in the darkest of situations.

As an Indian born in America and attending school away from home, I often find myself craving the home-cooked foods that accompany Diwali. It is a holiday celebrated in what I know to be my parents’ house—but after years of parties, the house is no longer simply our own. It is now a place for the entire town to come celebrate all holidays, both American and Indian.

The first day of Diwali begins with ever-lasting food preparations and family singing old Hindi songs while cooking the most fragrant and delicious snacks. Every person in the house has a smile ear to ear as they clean, make the clay lamps, and string what most call Christmas lights, on the porch. As the evening approaches, friends arrive in colorful clothing, donned in everything from bright saris to regal kurtas. People are scattered throughout the house and the front yard. Those outside create beautiful images known as Rangoli, or sand art.

After hours of eating, singing, and even dancing, the fireworks begin. It is often a humorous and confusing moment for our neighborhood, because many believe that we simply don’t know when New Year’s begins and that we enjoy fireworks during the month of November. The fireworks are followed by more singing, and numerous glasses of tea—a pass-time many Indians cherish. The evening ends around 6 a.m. after people are truly partied out.

This year, in my new place, I’m going to invite friends over, make Diwali treats, and find a local group that’s also ready to celebrate.

For a full list of places where you can go celebrate too, click here. And in case you’re wondering what to cook this year, check out Five Must-Try Diwali Dishes!

[Read Related: 5 Must-Try Diwali Dishes

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Published Date: October 21, 2015 2:52 AM IST