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Seasons of Light

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Photo: Bruce Murray, Visionfire

Journalist Ameeta Vohra celebrates both Diwali and Christmas and gives each celebration its time to shine

As the holiday season arrives, many Atlantic Canadians are fortunate to have diverse backgrounds. One of those reasons is to celebrate different cultural and traditional holidays.

I am one of the lucky ones. Born and raised in Halifax, I celebrate Western culture holidays and ones based on my Indian culture.

This is the busiest time of year.  With Diwali in mid-November and the Christmas season soon after that, one of the challenges is separating both occasions to give each one its true identity and meaning.

Both have similarities. From spending time with family, eating and sharing lots of sweets, praying, buying new clothes, giving out money, lighting up candles as well as lights, and with each occasion spanning almost a week, it’s easy to blend Diwali and Christmas.

However, that is where the similarities end.

Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is a five-day observance that signifies the start of a new year, victory of good over evil and end of harvest. For me, it’s all about festive food, bright lights and vibrant colours.

During this time, celebrants wear traditional, vibrant and colourful outfits like sarees, lehengas, a dupatta and salwar kameez.  Every year, I always buy new clothes to wear for the festival as that is part of a traditional ritual.

Each day of the holiday signifies unique traditions.  On the first day, people purchase a silver or gold item for their home and clean their residence.  

When day two arrives, several beautiful trays of mithai (sweets) covered with flower petals and tin foil leaves are created not just to enjoy but also to share with family, neighbours and friends.  Every year, that was a special moment of spending time with my mother who would make burfi, gulab jamans, ladoos, gujiya, gajar ka halwa, chum chums, kheer and jalebis while I would sit next to her and be her taste tester.

Additionally, rangoli is all over the house floors. It is art created on the floor with coloured sand, rice and flower petals.

The actual Diwali holiday is Day 3, and that is because there has to be no moon so the festivities can start in the dark.  Families get together to pray to Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth.  One of my favourite parts of the holiday is lighting up diyas, lights and firecrackers at the end of prayers. Also, my family would play a lot of Diwali songs, typically ones from Bollywood movies. Windows remain open and lights stay on as a way to invite Lakshmi into your home for a wealth and prosperity blessing.

While many festive Indian food dishes are part of the festival, celebrants fast and do not drink alcoholic beverages on Day 3. Samosas, pakoras and aloo tikki are typical snacks.

As the food is considered a divine gift, it goes through a sacrifice for respect.  Celebrants do not eat beef, as cows are considered sacred. Food for the festival includes channa masala, saag, aloo gobi, matter paneer, subzi, daal, puris and raita, which are all vegetarian fare.

On the fourth day, businesses are closed, and they pray for the technology or tools they are thankful for but also as a sign of respect. In my case, I pray to my computer and technology tools, as they are the critical thing I use for work. The final day of the festival celebrates the bond between brother and sister, wishing each other a healthy and long life.

When Christmas rolls around, I observe those traditions and meanings mainly because during my upbringing I went to a Catholic school.  At the start of Advent on December 1, I begin lighting a candle on a wreath and increasing the number as a new week approaches until we get to Christmas Day.  

I purchase a real Christmas tree at the beginning of the month, decorate it with lights, green and red ornaments, a star topper and bead garland. Until Epiphany, which is 12 days after Christmas Day, I keep up the tree to signify when the three wise men worship baby Jesus. On Christmas Eve, I attend midnight mass, which is prayers and carols to represent the birth of Jesus.

As a family, we always watch the usual Christmas movies and cartoons, including a Christmas Story, White Christmas, Elf and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Every evening we would drive around the city to see all the houses with Christmas lights and outdoor displays. 

On Christmas Eve, we sit around the fireplace, sing carols, watch shows and eat all sorts of festive foods while looking at the largest, beautifully decorated and lighted tree. On Christmas Day, we woke up and opened presents together and enjoyed a traditional turkey family dinner.  

No matter what holiday you mark, it’s essential to genuinely and authentically mark those occasions while understanding the meaning of the observances. As each year passes, tradition, culture and heritage become more critical. For me, celebrating my parents’ culture, acknowledging where I came from and sharing it with family and friends means separating it from Christmas. 

Be open and trying different cultures while accepting all the different ways people live in our society. No matter where you are, these holidays signify cherished time to spend with those you love.

East Coast Living