Diwali: India’s biggest festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and global citizens

Round golden tray with lit candles

Diya lamps and candles lit for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Pexels

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 7: The festival of lights launches from India today and crosses the globe, in the ancient celebration of Diwali. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. As awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world. (Note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region. In some regions—such as Texas, U.S., Auckland, New Zealand and Manchester, England—festivals are already taking place.)

Extra! FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis adds more about Diwali—plus a delicious recipe!

PREPARATIONS AND CELEBRATIONS

Man in white Indian tunic making circle of light with sparkler firecracker

Happy Diwali! Photo by Varun Khurana, courtesy of Flickr

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks, and families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts. Tonight, the diyas will remain lit through the dark hours.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: THE SOUL

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduJainSikh

Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: It’s Halloween!

Lit-up lanterns with designs, pumpkin, Halloween themes

Photo courtesy of GoodFreePhotos

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31-FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids. So grab your best ghoulish mask and get the (Halloween) party started!

HALLOWEEN: A CHRISTIAN ORIGIN; A CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Girl in dress at door of woman in mask, pumpkins, Halloween

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture. Recent estimates are that the very diverse American business of “haunted attractions” brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the commercial elements of Halloween have spread from North America to Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and parts of East Asia.

SAMHAIN: GUISING FOR A TRICK

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

Woman looking at camera with face paint, man at side, Dia de los Muertos skeleton

Dressed for a Dia de los Muertos festival, Los Angeles. Photo by Rob Sheridan, courtesy of Flickr

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: DAY OF THE DEAD

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

ALL THINGS HALLOWEEN:
DIY COSTUMES, DÉCOR, PARTIES & MORE

What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

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Categories: International Observances

Dussehra: Hindus celebrate feminism, harvest, goodness at end of Navaratri

Tall colorful effigies in night with crowd

One hundred-foot Ravana effigies, on the 10th night of Dussehra in New Delhi. Photo by Kaniths, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19: The festival of Navaratri culminates in the most celebrated holiday of all nine nights: Dasara (spellings vary). From the Sanskrit words for “remover of bad fate,” today’s Dussehra brings towering effigies to the streets of India, along with a host of ancient rituals and marked traditions. Many Hindus recognize the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, a demon, during an epic battle over Rama’s wife, Sita. It’s believed that Ravana had 10 heads, and thus, 10 unfavorable qualities are rid from households with elaborate Yanga performances today; the unfavorable qualities include lust, anger, delusion, greed and jealousy.

Did you know? Feminism shines in the victory of Goddess Durga over demons, thereby continuing the female-centered rituals of Navaratri. In rural areas of India and Nepal, it’s recognized that harvest season begins today; the Mother Goddess is worshipped, and farmers ask for fertility in their soil.

Dasara man India dressed up

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

In many parts of India, towering effigies of Ravana and his brothers are filled with firecrackers and exploded. Citizens cheer at the blast and dance, sing and feast. The burning effigies are also seen as a cleansing ritual, as they encourage onlookers to burn inner evil and follow the path of righteousness. In northern India, a chariot holding devotees costumed as Lord Rama and Sita rolls down the streets; in southern India, homes are decorated with lamps and flowers.

Did you know? Dussehra is also known as Vijayadashami, the celebration of yet another victory involving goodness over evil: Goddess Durga’s defeat of the demon Mahisasura. According to this legend, Mother Goddess Shakti incarnated in the form of Goddess Durga.

Given the day’s auspiciousness, many Hindu (and non-Hindu) children begin their formal education today. Some devotees purchase new work tools—whether books, computers or farming equipment—and still others pay respect to elders and request their blessings. Families and friends gather for parties and feasting.

Across India, gratitude is expressed for the end of a scorching summer season and the approach of cooler days.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Canada kicks off the great Northern Thanksgiving season

Shopping for pumpkins at an open market in Ottawa. (Photo by Lars Plougmann, released via Wikimedia Commons.)

Shopping for pumpkins in Ottawa. (Photo by Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons.)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 8: Canadian Thanksgiving memories go back many centuries—as do the stories more familiar to Americans. After surviving dire conditions on the Atlantic, Canadian expeditionary groups in the late 1500s and early 1600s celebrated what amounted to a Thanksgiving. However, more recent celebrations literally hopped all over the calendar—landing as early as April before settling on the second Monday in October by national decree in 1957.

Today, official histories of the holiday in Canada stress that this is a harvest festival echoing traditions of the nation’s indigenous peoples. The Canadian Encyclopedia begins its entry this way: “Indigenous peoples in North America have a history of holding communal feasts in celebration of the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers.”

Canada’s most-read newspaper, The Globe and Mail, sums it up for readers this way: “British explorer Martin Frobisher is credited with holding the first Canadian Thanksgiving–in Newfoundland–to mark his safe return from an unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. But aboriginal groups—both in Canada and the United States—have long traditions of holding Thanksgiving ceremonies to commemorate abundant harvests.”

It’s Not Just about Turkey Anymore!

Most Canadian families expect turkey, mashed potatoes and other autumn side dishes. One Canadian poll says as many as three-quarters of families plan to have some turkey. But, various Canadian journalists also have been pointing out: A growing number of Canadians are proud to call themselves “foodies”—and some holiday dinners will feature alternative dishes.

One Canadian food magazine announced last week that noted Peruvian-Canadian chef Ricardo Valverde will feature special Canadian (October 8) and American Thanksgiving (November 22) dinners this year at his Vancouver restaurant—serving some of his Peruvian specialities. For Canadian Thanksgiving, this year, he’s serving arroz con pato (rice with duck).

That freedom to indulge in a wide range of foods has been building for years. Since the 1960s, the week-long Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in Ontario has been scheduled to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadians claim it is the second-largest Oktoberfest in the world, drawing 700,000 visitors each year. Care to learn more? Here’s the event’s official website.

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Categories: International Observances

Navaratri: Hindus celebrate nine nights of femininity and goddess Durga

Dancers in colorful dresses in front of stone temple

Garba dancers for Navaratri. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9: An ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine and femininity, Hindus begin the nine-night religious festival known as Sharad Navaratri (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a”). Each night during Navaratri, Hindus worship a different form or characteristic of the Mother Goddess Durga, who is regarded as being manifested in cosmic energy and power. In general, Sharad Navaratri is the celebration of good over evil, though many aspects of this tradition vary by region in India and around the world.

Did you know? Navaratri means, literally, “nine nights” (“nava” and “ratri”).

Navaratri in its basic form takes place a number of times during the seasons of each year, but it’s Sharad Navaratri—this festival, at the beginning of autumn—that takes precedence over any other. Sharad Navaratri culminates on a final day known as Dussehra.

Legends related to this observance differ: Some indicate that Shiva gave permission to Durga to visit her mother for nine days, while others describe Durga’s victory following a nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura. Life-size clay figures depicting this battle are commonly seen in temples during Navaratri. But there is a universal theme to this tradition, too: All Hindus aim for purity, avoiding meat, grains and alcohol—and usually installing a household pot that is kept lit for nine days. Some devotees fast, and others consume only milk and fruit for nine days.

ORCHESTRAS, DANCING AND SHRINES

Navaratri brings out orchestras and community-wide singing in India: nighttime dances in the streets combine with bountiful feasts and shrines are elaborately decorated. In Saraswat Brahmin temples, statue figures are adorned with flowers, sandalwood paste and turmeric.

In some regions of India, it’s believed that one should try to envision the divinity in the tools used for daily life—whether books, computers or larger instruments—and decorate them with flowers and other adornments, in hopes of both humbling themselves and bringing auspiciousness upon the items that aid them in livelihood.

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Categories: Hindu

Meskel: Ethiopian festival for the true Cross a ‘cultural heritage experience’

Big crowds, white clothing, dark-skinned people

Meskel celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by peteropaliu, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27: Across Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox communities, bonfires on the eve of Meskel remind families of an ancient story: the vivid dreams and forthcoming discovery of the true Cross by Queen Helena, in the fourth century. On Meskel, the faithful attend religious services, gather with family and feast together.

The traditional story tells that St. Helena instructed the people of Jerusalem to bring wood for a bonfire. After adding incense, smoke rose high into the sky then returned to the ground to touch the precise spot where the true Cross was located. Then, a part of the true Cross was brought to Ethiopia where it lies at the mountain of Amba Geshen.

MESKEL: AN ANCIENT (AND UNIQUE) CELEBRATION

The Meskel festival traces its roots back 1,600 years. Although it hasn’t been celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm in every century, Ethiopians certainly enjoy the festival today. Colorful processions begin in the early evening of Meskel eve; firewood is gathered by community members, and the bonfire site is sprinkled with fresh yellow daisies. Bonfires burn the night through, and when the flames at last begin to smolder, leftover ash is used to mark the foreheads of the faithful, in an act similar to that of Ash Wednesday.

Did you know? Ethiopia is the only country in the world that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level. Ethiopia recently petitioned—and succeeded, in December of 2013—in requesting UNESCO to register the Meskel events in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience, for its “ancient nature … color and significance … and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists as well as the immense participation of the society.”

Ethiopian honey wine, exotic spices and spicy hot peppers complement plates mounded with food, as family-honored recipes fill the table. In community settings, dozens of women gather to prepare food for hungry churchgoers, humming and singing traditional songs while they work. Homemade cheese, tomatoes and lentils are served with injera flatbread. (Make injera with this recipe, from Genius Kitchen.) Following food, the time-honored Ethiopian coffee ceremony commences.

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Categories: Christian

Sukkot: Jews gather ‘neath the sukkah for the Feast of Booths

Branches and dried stalks building structure with wooden table in the middle

A sukkah. Photo by Jeremy Price, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23—SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 30: Jewish families around the world spend time in temporary outdoor shelters to celebrate the ancient harvest festival: Sukkot. Following the Jewish High Holidays each year, Jews enter a joyous “Season of our Rejoicing.”

The tradition calls on Jews to construct and dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, in memory of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and, as such, many sukkahs are decorated with autumn crops. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see sukkahs decorated with gourds, pumpkins, squash and other foods associated with fall. Traditionally work is halted on the first and second days of Sukkot, with the days in between reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).

HOW TO BUILD A SUKKAH

Though sukkahs may look vastly different, the builders try to abide by specific rules. A sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls covered with a material that cannot be blown away by wind; the roof must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks or wooden boards. The roof materials of a sukkah must be left loose, so that rain can get in and, preferably, the stars can be seen at nighttime. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) A sukkah may be any size so long as a family can dwell in it, and many Jews spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. It is common to eat meals in the sukkah, and some Jews even choose to sleep in it.

Yellow citrus fruit hanging from branch surrounded by green leaves

An etrog. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another custom associated with Sukkot involves the Four Species. The four species—the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the lulav (palm branch), aravot (two willow branches) and hadassim (three myrtle branches) are used to “rejoice before the L_rd.” With the etrog in one hand and the branches bound together in the other hand, blessings are recited. The branches are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere. (Wikipedia has details.)

Note: The two days following Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Looking for autumn recipes, tips on building a sukkah and more? Check out the resources at My Jewish Learning, Chabad.org and Aish.com. 

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Categories: Jewish