The fall season is long over and now, as the winter season slowly comes to an end, I will miss all the traditions and celebrations that are part of those seasons. The fall to winter months have always been my favorite ones because it is a time of many cultural celebrations and holidays. I respect all the festivities and traditions being celebrated around the world and even down my own street. Just months ago, when my family was celebrating Diwali, my friend across the street and his family were fasting for Ramadan. Our next door neighbors, a Girl Scout leader and her family, were putting up their Christmas tree, while my brother’s Boy Scout troop leader and his family were getting ready for Hanukkah. So many different cultures and so many different traditions within one country and one world! That is what I celebrate during the fall and winter months.
My family is Hindu and so we celebrate Diwali, which comes around the late fall (but I like to keep celebrating it even through early winter). It is referred to as “The Festival of Lights” in the western world, but in Sri Lanka, where my family is originally from, we call it “Deepavali.” Deepavali or Diwali is a five-day festival which celebrates the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. There are many family traditions celebrated during Diwali, but one universal one is the lighting candles. Diwali literally means “row of lamps” and traditionally during this celebration, each house is lit up with oil lamps, candles, and colorful electric lights. In earlier times, earthen lamps with cotton wicks were lit in most of the houses. Both my grandmothers still use these earthen lamps in their home temples, but nowadays the earthen lamps seem to be getting replaced with candles.
The lighting of lamps is so important during Diwali for a few reasons. In Northern India, everyone celebrates when Lord Rama (literally meaning “the fire that burns away our sins”) returned (around 5100 B.C.) to Ayodhya after his 14 years of exile with his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana. The people lit lamps to celebrate the return of their King and the return of good over evil. In the Southern parts of India, people celebrate the victory of Goddess Durga (light) over the demon, Nakasura (darkness). Light is significant in Hinduism because it signifies goodness, power, good luck, and most of all, purity. In our house, when my grandmothers are not with us during Diwali, we do not always light candles or earthen lamps but we do always go to sleep with all the lights on – (but most of the time, I think it is just because we forget to turn the lights off….). However, Diwali lights outside every door signify that the inner spiritual light of a person must reflect on the outer actions as well. I have always felt that there is an important message of unity in this practice since one lamp, such as from a wicker, is able to light several other lamps without affecting its own light.
There are many traditions associated with Diwali. It is a little different in the United States, but as part of the festivities, homes, stores and other public places ((such as in Little India) are decorated with diyas, or small clay oil lamps or candle holders. Hindus traditionally celebrate Diwali by cleaning, reorganizing and as my grandmother says, “tidying up” our homes. If practical, we leave our windows (and even doors) open so that Lakshmi, or wealth, can come in. We also wear new clothes, exchange gifts of various traditional sweets and dried fruits, play card games and have big, festive meals. My father’s friends usually go to India around this time, and they return with beautifully wrapped boxes full of colorful sweets such as ladoos, halwa (made with grated carrot, condensed milk, nuts and golden varq), and sparkly Kaju Ki Barfi (made with cashew nuts and milk, topped with silver varq). My father also brings home popular desserts such a gulab jamun (made with khoya, fried golden and finally dipped in a saffron infused sugar syrup) as well as kaju katli, rasmali, and kesar peda. In Sri Lanka, we traditionally eat payasam on most religious holidays. Payasam is made with a yummy light cream, rice and milk pudding with cashews and raisins. Sometimes my mother will make kulfi, which is the traditional South Asian ice cream which is often found in different exotic flavors such as rose and mango. All these desserts and recipes are centuries old but still so popular today!
There are so many great desserts and foods to enjoy around Diwali time. My grandmother, in West Virginia, makes a lot of tasty treats which she then freezes and sends to us by overnight delivery. When we get them early the next morning, we warm everything up and it feels as if she is right next to us. We feel our grandparents love around us though they are thousands of miles away. My other grandmother, who lives a few miles from us, also makes many yummy foods and has my dad pick them up from her house every night during the 5-day celebration. When she lived with us, my grandmother made Deepavali special by making thalis. A thali is a meal served on a stainless steel plate or, traditionally, with my family, also on a banana leaf. She would ask my father to buy banana leaves from Vallarta. She washed the huge leaves and placed rice in the center of each leaf, which serves as our plate. She then put dunas – or small bowls – of about ten different delicious dishes on the thali. On religious occasions, my grandmother serves vegetarian thali, with her unlimited varieties of vegetable curries, lentil soup, and colorful desserts.
There are so many practices that I find unifying and similar. For instance, we loved celebrating Chinese New Year with our many East Asian friends this month. My father was born and raised in Malaysia so he loves celebrating all the traditions of the Chinese culture and so do my brother and I. This year, it is the Year of the Dog, which symbolizes luck. Also, this morning, my family and I will be participating in our school’s annual color run. My brother and I will run the 10k, while my parents walk the 5K, and people at different corners will throw beautiful colored powder at us. This is just like the color runs I have done for years with the Girl Scouts but it also reminds me of the Hindu Holi. Holi is traditionally celebrated in early March to throw off the cold of winter and celebrate the colors of spring. Hindus traditionally attend a public bonfire and toss family and friends with a stunning variety of colored powders. Even though my parents sneeze for days afterward, colored powders are always fun, regardless of one’s personal traditions and culture.
Each culture’s traditions should be universally celebrated and respected regardless of one’s own beliefs. I remember in 4th grade, my twin brother’s class was discussing a chapter on different religions. A few of his classmates told my brother, during recess, that he had a “false religion.” I was close by and remember my brother saying, at age nine, “There are no false religions, just closed off minds.” He has always been very philosophical and very blunt. But he was right. There are no “false” religions and no “wrong way” of celebrating life – just wonderful and multiple ways of looking at each person’s reality and the world. Happiness comes from acceptance, kindness, compassion, generosity, and an open heart and mind. There is wonder in all the multicultural beliefs, spiritual practices, and ways of life – not only in our country but in all the countries of the world. I hope that we can embrace the future with this wonder and acceptance. Respecting each other’s religions and acknowledging different ways of thought is something that should be celebrated every day.