Diwali and Christmas, both major occasions for families and friends to come together in the festive spirit and exchange gifts, sweets and greetings for a propitious year ahead. Every street in every city is bedecked with dazzling lights. Even small sleepy towns come alive with the festive fervor as homes are adorned with lanterns, candles and earthen lamps. Known as the festival of lights, Diwali signifies the triumph of good over evil, a harbinger of hope and betterment.
Like Christmas, Diwali too finds its origins in religion. As rich and diverse a country is India with its varied traditions and cultures, so does Diwali take on different connotations in different parts of the country. The most common belief is that Diwali originated during the time of Lord Rama, a Hindu God and the eponymous prince of the mythological tale Ramayana. When Rama came back to his kingdom victorious, after defeating the demon King, Ravan who had kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita, the citizens celebrated their return by lighting their homes with rows of earthen lamps.
Did you know that Diwali is celebrated over a period of 5 days? Although Diwali celebrations are focused on the third day, the Lakshmi Puja day, there are festivities and rituals before and after the big day, with their own significance. Days before the onset of the 5 day festival, homes and business houses undergo a spring cleaning of sorts. The cleaning signifies removal of unwanted and cluttered items from the home and mind, making a fresh start and beginning in our lives.
The first day, celebrated as Dhanteras in North India, is considered to be an auspicious day to buy precious metal like gold and silver. In South India, where Diwali is better known as Deepavali, the second day or Narakachaturdashi signifies the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon, Naraka. The latter had kidnapped sixteen thousand daughters of the Gods. In West India, it is celebrated as Kali Puja whereas in the North it is Choti (small) Diwali. It is customary to take a scented oil bath early in the morning on this day. In some communities, the eldest lady of the house, usually the grandmother symbolically rubs oil on the heads of the family members.
The third day is the Lakshmi Puja. Hindus pray for prosperity and well-being for the rest of the year by worshipping Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is also the day of the new moon, and homes are lit with rows of earthen lamps to dispel the darkness. New clothes, typically rich traditional wear are worn by people, who then step out to Diwali parties or family reunions.
The second and the third day are the main festive days when firecrackers of different shapes, colours and noise intensities are burst. Sparklers, a small hand-held firecracker that emits sparks and multicolored flames are the most popular among children. Flower pot sparkler, a small conical firecracker lit on the ground and chakra, a flat round firecracker that spins on its axis are other popular fireworks that never fail to bring joy to little children.
The fourth day is Balipadyami that signifies the coming home of King Bali. He was defeated by Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu but was allowed to come to Earth for one day and rule.
The Fifth day of Diwali is celebrated as Bhai Dhooj, an occasion special for brothers and sisters. In India, Bhai dhooj and Raksha Bandhan are dedicated to the brother-sister bond. On both these occasions, sisters pray for the long life of their brothers. While the sister gets gifts and a promise of lifelong protection on Raksha bandhan, Bhai dhooj is when the brother gets gifts from the sister. This day as celebrated as Bhaitika in Nepal, where the sister applies a 7 color tika on her brother’s forehead.
There is also the tradition of gambling on Diwali night. People invite their friends and relatives over to play cards, with stakes starting from a few rupees to several thousand. It may seem surprising that a vice like gambling is connected with the biggest festival. But legend has it that Goddess Parvati played dice with her husband Lord Shiva and elated with her win, she decided that whosoever gambled on Diwali night would prosper throughout the following year. For certain Hindu communities such as the Gujaratis from West India, Diwali marks the beginning of the New Year.
As with Christmas, gifting is customary during Diwali and there is no dearth of gifting options from food, clothes to gadgets, to suit each one’s pocket. Traditionally, family and friends would gift each other an assortment of dried fruits and nuts. Sweets are an integral part of every festival in India and during Diwali; the business of sweets gets bigger and better. Barfis (flat, square or diamond shaped), Laddoos (round spherical) made from nuts, milk or flour adorned with a sliver of silver are made or bought and presented to family and friends.
For a modern twist, chocolates take the place of barfis and laddoos while embellished designer lamps replace the simple earthen lamp. Fairy lights have found their way into homes and shopping malls that entice shoppers with irresistible deals.
Both Christmas and Diwali have a universal appeal, despite their religious origins. The ebullient atmosphere, the spirit of gifting and the essence of family bring together people from various faiths and communities who celebrate the festival’s ethos of hope, positivity and cheer. There’s one more thing that’s common between Diwali and Christmas - both are kids’ favorites, with extended holidays, gifts, feasting and ample opportunities for fun!
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