When I was a child, the lead-up to Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, included assembling boxes of sweets for friends and neighbors, buying new clothes for every member of the family and decorating the house with strings of twinkling lights, painted diya (clay lamps) and flower-petal rangoli (traditional floor art).
Diwali is the biggest holiday on the Hindu calendar, and my immigrant parents made sure it remained so in suburban New Jersey. The five-day festival celebrates the victory of good over evil and the vanquishing of darkness with light, although the deities, rituals and stories that are associated with the holiday are different in different parts of the Subcontinent. On this night of a new moon — the last night of the Hindu year and, in 2017, on Oct. 19 — total darkness sets in the night sky.
My parents, who migrated to the United States in the 1970s, made Diwali their own with what little they had.
“I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been to try to hold on to traditions and celebrations in a country — in a town — where there were very few resources to use and very few people who understood,” said Nisha Sharma, a Pennsylvania-based young adult author, who grew up in a town that was “99 percent white” and, like me, is the daughter of Indian immigrants.
The rituals of Diwali gave me a strong sense of self; the traditions helped to reinforce both cultural and family values, and provided continuity and connection with my community.
Sharma, too, faithfully reproduces the rituals of her childhood. “I read from my tattered English-lettered puja [prayer] book that I got when I was a kid,” she said. “I light one real diya and a few tea candles. I turn on all the lights in the house, and if I’m able to, hang a few Christmas lights as well. Most importantly, I buy myself a festive pair of pajamas and binge on halwa [a fudge-like confection] and channa [chick peas].”
Now, as the America-born parent of a third-generation American child, I have an even deeper appreciation for the ways in which my parents continued the traditions of Diwali in the United States. This sort of cultural torch-passing is hard work, but I know how crucial these rituals were to my well-being and self-identity. I want to provide my daughter with the same security as well.
“Tradition and ritual are very important parts of the human experience, and these are very often embedded in religious or cultural celebrations,” said Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University–Los Angeles and mother. “Children do well with structures, expectations, bench marks, connection, and tradition and rituals such as holidays can really provide [that]. Holidays also bring a predictability to life — much like seasons — which is also so essential for children.”
She added, “To have traditions that are not simply assimilative, but rather represent a long-standing history within the family, can also provide clarity and a sense of self, instead of feeling like the ‘other’.”
Although my traditions are similar to my parents’, I’ve added others to suit my personality. I am both literary and crafty, so reading books and making art are central to celebrations in my home.
Other friends, like Mohan Ambikaipaker, assistant professor of critical race studies at Tulane University and father of two, prioritize community-building on Diwali. Ambikaipaker grew up in Malaysia before immigrating to the United States when he was in high school. “Growing up, Deepavali,” — the name for the holiday in parts of Southern India, including the region from which Ambikaipaker family hails — “was the big festival,” he said. He recalled having “open houses” for his Malay and Chinese neighbors, and everyone was invited home to partake in festivities.
Ambikaipaker and his family continue this tradition of “open house” in New Orleans. “We have a big party,” his 8-year-old daughter, Mallika, told me, reminiscent of her father’s childhood celebrations. “We get treats. And presents. And new clothes,” she said. Her favorite tradition is treat-eating “because [they] are delicious,” and said that her family’s traditions make her “happy.”
“I hope to instill the value that Deepavali is also something we can share with others who are different from us,” Ambikaipaker added. “It is a time where [we] are in the position to bestow hospitality, and there is a lot of joy within that.”
Durvasula added that such cross-cultural sharing is also crucial to identity-formation for children of color. “Traditions provide children with scaffolds that allow them to develop what is often a bicultural identity, and also a means by which to also engage peers and share cultural traditions with them, which can foster identity as well,” she said.
This year, for the first time, my kindergartner has taken an interest in planning our family celebration. So, while we will continue dressing up and decorating the house, we also plan on incorporating some of her ideas, including baking a Diwali cake for her classmates and planting something in the backyard to mark the start of a new year. These two ideas mirror her personality; she loves to bake and being in the soil is her happy place.
Three generations on, our American Diwali continues to transform, but, in whatever form, it provides magic, spirit and texture — and a comforting constant — to our lives.
Celebrate Diwali in your own home with crafts, books and recipes. “It’s such a beautiful holiday with such beautiful imagery, so it ‘translates’ well and allows children to participate via lighting the lamps and enjoying the food and bonhomie that often accompanies it,” said Durvasula.
Salt dough candle holders
Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Every year, we make salt dough candle holders to mark the holiday.
- ½ cup flour
- ½ cup salt
- 1 cup water
- tempera paint
- Mix salt and flour.
- Gradually add water, and mix until a dough forms.
- Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until dough is smooth and pliable.
- Roll fist-sized ball, and depress center to form container for tea candle.
- Bake at 325 degrees F until hard, about 1 hour. Decorate with paint, sequins and glitter.
Read about Diwali
For more about Diwali, and the stories and customs that inform the holiday, turn to your local library for these three children’s books:
Rama And the Demon King by Jessica Souhami. Across much of North India, Diwali celebrates the homecoming of Rama after being exiled in the forest for 14 years. The Ramayana, an epic poem that chronicles his quest and return, has inspired countless cinematic and literary works.
Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar. This feminist graphic novel reimagines the Ramayana from the perspective of Sita, the abducted queen, and explores the “terrible price that war exacts from women, children, animals and the natural world.”
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Emily Haynes and Sanjay Patel. It’s customary to exchange sweets on Diwali. This charming picture book offers a sweet twist on a Hindu tale; in it, the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is a sugar-obsessed child with a penchant for ladoo, a traditional Indian dessert.
Make Diwali treats
Jalebi are deep-fried, spiral, funnel-cake like confections made from either wheat or lentil flour, but here’s a tasty hack using store-bought pancake mix (many thanks to my friend, Madhushree Ghosh).
Once fried, jalebi soaked in a warm sugar syrup that’s usually flavored with cardamom and saffron. They’re crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and can be eaten as a dessert, at breakfast or with tea or coffee.
For the jalebi:
- 1 cup pancake mix
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt
- ½ cup water
For the sugar syrup:
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 5-6 strands saffron
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon lime juice
- 2 cups of vegetable oil, for frying
- Combine the water, lime juice, sugar, saffron threads and cardamom in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside
- In a large bowl, combine the mix, yogurt and water and mix until there are no more lumps.
- Fit a pastry bag with a small writing tip, and pour the batter into the bag.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat frying oil to 350 degrees F.
- Squeeze 2-inch round whorls of batter into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown on both sides.
- Remove the jalebis from the oil and set on paper towels to drain. Transfer the hot cakes to the sugar syrup and let soak for a minute or two. Remove the jalebis from the syrup and set on a rack to dry for 3 to 4 hours, until the syrup has formed a hard shell.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays and articles, and also develops educational media and curriculums. She can be found online at poojamakhijani.com.