It’s mid-October, and in a quiet South Valley neighborhood this past weekend, several residents were out wrangling Christmas lights that they had hastily put away in January. Some chided themselves for not having done a neater job packing the lights away and fussed over fused bulbs.
Some even drove to the nearest Target to find replacement lights, perplexing the poor customer service rep who looked around at his Halloween display and wondered why anyone was bothering about Christmas already.
Except of course, these residents weren’t preparing for Christmas. They were preparing for the Hindu Festival of Diwali.
Hinduism is a cornucopia of different regional beliefs, and Diwali is one of the few occasions that is celebrated through all the subcategories of the religion. It is so popular that it draws participants from other religions. In the Tamil culture, Diwali is called Deepavalli, literally, the Light of the Lamp. This sums up the common thread that Diwali shares throughout South Asia. It is meant to be a celebration of light over dark, signifying the conquering of good over evil. Not surprisingly, it falls on what is predicted to be the darkest night on the lunar calendar—the lunar equivalent of the winter solstice, which usually falls in the late-October/early-November timeframe.
Among the South Bay’s vibrant South Asian community, Diwali thrives as a festival. There are a few commonalities practiced by all. Gifts of new clothes and jewelry are common, and not surprisingly, Diwali rivals Christmas as a retail boom for South Asian vendors in the Bay Area. Stores will stock new shipments of Indian goods, and entire retail fairs will mushroom up, taking place everywhere from hotel banquet centers to friends’ houses.
Beyond the new clothes, traditional oil lamps (“diyas” or “deepam”) are a common tradition, and lighting them signifies welcoming light into the heart, mind and soul. Just as Christmas lights have replaced live candles, they also replace oil lamps for many, especially outdoors.
Here in the South Valley, which is blessed with a Hindu population large enough to boast several sub-traditions, there are a multitude of subtle differences in the way Diwali is celebrated. Neeta Sri, for example, who hails from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, fondly remembers gambling and card games as a way of heralding in good luck.
“It is customary to play card games all through the night, after fireworks,” says Sri. “A game called three-patti is the most popular, but any card games are…game.”
Gujarati’s from western India celebrate it as the start of a new year, and their businesses often tie their fiscal years to the occasion.
Some subcultures celebrate it as a multi-day festival that leads up to the darkest night, while others celebrate only the day of the darkest night.
Other celebrants use this as a time to look inward—treating the occasion as a solemn one—meant to be marked by prayer. And even with these celebrants, there is a wide range of how the prayers are done, and even which Hindu deity is prayed to—with more than 32 million gods to choose from, Hinduism certainly has no dearth.
Others mark the event with a party filled with dancing and music. For these people, even meat and alcohol are acceptably consumed on this day—marking Diwali perhaps as the only Hindu occasion that is celebrated in this manner. The typical menu for Diwali thus varies widely, with everything from rice and various flatbreads being served as a staple, to a wide range of vegetable, lentil and meat dishes.
Since it has such an all-encompassing tradition, Diwali is embraced among South Asians who practice religions other than Hinduism. The Jain and some Buddhist communities, for example, celebrate Diwali, as does the Sikh community, which marks the occasion with one of its own: Bhandi Choor Divas, observed as a day of the liberation of Guru Hargobind.
Christians like Anu Mitha, who was raised Protestant in south India, celebrated Diwali with her Hindu neighbors, enjoying the celebratory fireworks and new clothes, along, of course, with the glorious Indian food. A big tradition she remembers is “Thaladeepavali,” where newly married couples celebrating their first Deepavalli/Diwali were gifted with presents by their in-laws.
“It is very special, and usually they are endowed with lots of gifts from either side of the family—though it is more for [ladies],” says Mitha. “We get lots of sarees and jewelry.”
Like many transplanted traditions, Diwali has been transformed in its new home, taking on new dimensions while keeping the core. The Christmas lights are an example. Some South Indian Tamils didn’t have the tradition of lighting lamps during Diwali, but have adopted it here in the South Bay, and will happily put up the lights for the sake of bridging worlds for their kids.
Hinduism at its core is a religion that encourages tolerance. So, most Diwali revelers are happy to keep their lights up until after Christmas, joining in the festivity of lights that December brings.
“Why not?” say a group of 7-year-olds, all from different ethnic backgrounds, as they trudge to school. “More reasons to celebrate!”
The Hindu festival of Diwali begins Oct. 19 and is observed with diya lighting, home decoration, shopping, fireworks, puja (prayers), gifts, feast and sweets.