Celebrations of Light and Thanks

On a major holiday in November, Indians, like Americans, gather with their families and enjoy ample amounts of food. However, they’re not commemorating a 17th-century feast that joined Pilgrims with a similarly named population of indigenous North Americans. Most Indians are honoring a much more ancient event, the return of the hero Rama to his homeland Avodhya after 14 years in exile. As the story goes, the people of Avodhya welcomed Rama with fireworks and rows of oil lamps, so the occasion is marked each year with a similar luminary display. It’s called Diwali, the festival of lights.

I spent the holiday in Udaipur with my friend Ankita and her family, and they showed me the traditional Hindu customs. Diwali is a five-day event, but the third day, dedicated to Laxmi, goddess of wealth, is most important. In the days leading up to it, families thoroughly clean their houses, dusting everything from top to bottom. They also prepare all sorts of sugary delicacies. Sweets on Diwali are like turkey on America’s biggest November holiday. Their presence defines the occasion.

Ankita and her family enjoy some Diwali sweets.

Another essential tradition is to place oil lamps, or diyas, throughout the house. They’re usually handmade out of clay, just like the ones that greeted Rama.

A diya lit for Diwali

On the third day, Hindu families perform a puja, or worship, of Laxmi.  This involves a shrine with fruits, flowers, and an image of the goddess. Family members and guests recite prayers as they make circles over the shrine with a tray of incense. Inevitably, when I was handed the tray, I moved it in the wrong direction.

A shrine for Laxmi Puja

After the puja, I went with the family to Bapu Bazaar, Udaipur’s largest market and apparently the place to be on Diwali. It was packed with people, and the walkway glistened with colorful lights and bangles.

Bapu Bazaar, decorated for Diwali.

Throughout the night, fireworks lit up the city. I had never seen so many outside of organized displays. There were hundreds, with constant explosions coming from every part of the city and continuing until morning. It sounded like a war zone.

About a week later, America’s November holiday arrived, and I took it upon myself to serve as Thanksgiving ambassador. Because Indian stores don’t sell turkey—and I wasn’t about to hunt a peacock—large poultry was off the table. Instead, I prepared stuffed pumpkin, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry shortbread cookies (I had dried cranberries thanks to a care package from my parents).

Stuffed pumpkin

Mashed potatoes

Gravy

I brought the cookies to work for my co-workers and served the rest at my house. Everyone in attendance appreciated my cooking efforts, or at least lied convincingly, and I realized that the meal was a reversal of the first Thanksgiving. This time, the foreigner was sharing food with the Indians.

I didn’t ask people to go around and share what they were thankful for, because that part’s tacky and should stay in America, but I did think about what the November holidays have in common. On Thanksgiving and Diwali, like most major holidays, we spend time with the people we care about and take comfort in long-held traditions.  We also stuff ourselves with food, if we have the means to do so. No matter how, where, or why we celebrate, these holidays allow us to appreciate and enjoy the blessings in our lives.

NOTE: I managed to celebrate Black Friday in traditional American fashion and bought myself a new camera. High-resolution photos will return to Marwarology within the next week. Below is an example.

My Hindi tutor taught me the Hindi word for turkey (shatumurg), and I taught him how to draw a turkey like a pre-schooler.

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2 thoughts on “Celebrations of Light and Thanks

  1. Stephen Paul

    It is not surprising that although different religious and ethnic groups have distinct traditions for celebrating holidays, as humans we all often have food (or lack thereof), flames, and family as part of the festival celebrations. A very nice posting about your cross-cultural holiday experience!

  2. David Fisher

    “Inevitably, when I was handed the tray, I moved it in the wrong direction.”
    I call this pulling a Soltoff. Walking into the shrine would be far worse; I would call that pulling a Larson.

    Your food musings strike a similar chord to my reflections on holidays here in KY. I deep friend about 75 latkes yesterday, and had some friends over for an early dinner before evening Church. People loved them! I ate a dozen and felt sick in the morning. Haha. I hope your festival lights, this Chanukah, is going well!

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