Diwali Day is the first of a five-day festival of lights celebrated by Hindus around the world. The holiday observes the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, hope over despair, and knowledge over ignorance. Celebrating those victories seems to me to be something people of all religions, or even of no religion, could get on board with.
Diwali originated as a harvest festival. It isn’t observed on a fixed date but usually falls between late October and early November. This year, it falls on November 4.
Diwali is one of the major Hindu holidays, which should be obvious from the ways it is celebrated. Typically, families gather for prayers, clean up the home and workplace, dress up in new clothes, light lamps and candles, and set off fireworks.
My introduction to Diwali came during my first overseas assignment with the US Department of State in Stuttgart, Germany. One of my former colleagues from my pre-diplomat days came to Germany on business and made a side trip to Stuttgart to see me. She introduced me to an Indian couple she had met years before when they were in Bahrain. Because I can’t remember their names, I’ll call them Kamal and Saira. My friend returned to Minnesota, and I kept in touch with the Kamal and Saira.
Later that year, Saira and Kamal invited me to their home to take part in their observation of Diwali. Most of those they invited were not Hindu and not Indian, so the two of them explained the holiday and how they observed it. Lit candles surrounded us in their living room as we conversed and got to know one another better over a meal of typically Indian foods.
Several years and assignments later, when I was assigned as the management officer at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, I saw broader observation of Diwali due to the much larger Hindu population in that country. In the weeks leading up to Diwali, shops throughout the city strung lights up outside, the type of lights I still refer to as Christmas lights, making the streets downtown look like a carnival. Families filled the shops as they selected the new clothes they would wear when the festival began.
At the embassy, a group of a dozen women, both American and local staff, had begun meeting weekly during our lunch break to explore the many cultures the local staff at the embassy represented. As Diwali approached, we agreed we should encourage everyone at the embassy to light a candle on their desk for at least part of the day (we didn’t want to create fire hazards) to show respect for the Hindu employees who observed the holiday without having the time off to do so in their homes.
Since then, I’ve associated lighting candles with Diwali, observing the same victories for light, good, hope, and knowledge, victories we never seem to run out of needs to encourage.