7 Ways Families Are Celebrating and Finding Comfort in Diwali This Year

updated Nov 12, 2020
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Diwali Diya, Sweets OR Mithai and Gift boxes arranged over decorative background. Selective focus

Each year, millions of households across the world will light diyas—tiny oil lamps flickering with small but mighty flames—as a way to honor the triumph of good over evil. It feels comforting, especially this year, to concentrate on light in this undeniably dark season. The five-day celebration begins on Nov. 12 and continues through Nov. 16. This Saturday, Nov. 14, is Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, where people gather together, eat various mithais, exchange presents, and wear traditional Indian clothing. 

This year’s revelry will differ from the past. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, families are becoming creative in their approach to celebrating the holiday. But while celebrations may feel muted for many South Asian families, COVID-19 doesn’t mean cancelling Diwali. In fact, now as much as ever, families are remembering how to move toward the light. 

Some families are focusing on celebrations that allow for social distancing

Nandita Godbole, in Atlanta, Georgia, is focusing on what she can do to celebrate Diwali. Our family rituals are home-centered,” she told Apartment Therapy. “We will light votives around the house, and take time to decorate with rangoli outside.” She hopes to still get together for fireworks with her neighbors, per the CDC’s guidance about prioritizing outdoor celebrations to indoor ones. 

Of course, things have changed from previous years. “Normally, we would have a potluck with friends, but we have to rethink everything,” she said. She plans to forego standard celebrations, and is making token treat boxes and dropping them off at local friends and shipping a few to family. “Diwali and the Hindu New Year is a time to celebrate and strengthen family bonds, new ones and old ones,” she added. “This year should be no different.”

Credit: Nandita Godbole

Some are taking precautions and celebrating with a pre-established pandemic “bubble”

It is natural to look at past Diwalis and crave the nostalgia of a normal celebration. Ekta Garg, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, reminisced about festivities in the past. “The Diwali celebrations in CU was truly a season: five, six, sometimes seven weeks of parties, big and small, private and organization-driven,” she told Apartment Therapy, adding that she loved dressing up. “All the adornments our South Asian culture gives us—payal; a well-stitched lehenga; dozens of chudiyaan on each wrist—part of me relished planning my outfits every year.” 

Garg expects Diwali to be quiet this year. “It will be the equivalent of a lone tea light burning bravely against the darkness that has descended in 2020 due to the pandemic and the civil rights unrest, the economic woes, and political strife,” she said, adding that she won’t be spending time planning outfits, decorating a venue for a large party, or practicing lines to emcee the local Indian Cultural Society’s event. Instead, she will plan an elaborate dinner with the one family that hers has socialized with during the pandemic.

“We’ve already agreed to dress up. I’ll probably end up making two mithais, and I’m really tempted to do the hard ones: my mother’s recipes of gajar ka halwa and kheer, two desserts that need to be babysat and coaxed until they’re done. All these other years, the family and I were content with my shortcut microwave barfi. This year, now that everything else has slowed down, it seems only proper and right to take the time to slow this down too,” she said.

Many are using Zoom as a way to connect with friends and family

Hema Natraju lives in Singapore, where she is only able to have five people or fewer over to the house. “We’re having only our closest friends over,” she noted. To reach out to her family in India who can’t travel, she will do a Zoom pooja with her parents and in-laws. 

In years past, she exchanged sweets with other neighbors, but this Diwali she wants to be safe. “I’m going the homemade way and only make a couple of sweets that are my kids’ favorites,” she said. She will be going to temple on Diwali morning, but this year there will be social distancing. 

One ritual has always remained even during the pandemic. “We will be decorating the house as usual with diyas, marigold garlands, and rangoli at the doorstep—I normally make a maavu-kolam with rice flour mixed with water and after the outline’s done, my 7-year-old daughter fills it in with colored rangoli,” she said. “This is a ritual we treasure and I’m glad we’ll still get to do it.”

She readily admits that with the pandemic, the celebrations “will be different, but we’ll try to make the celebrations as normal as possible.”

Some are finding ways to preserve traditions of past Diwalis

Keeping traditions of the past is also important to Aarti Parekh of Phoenix, Arizona. She still plans to host a “couple of families over at the house and spend as much time outdoors as possible,” a plan aided by her hometown’s weather forecast.

There are some traditions that will continue and are unaffected by the pandemic. “Diwali starts with an early morning, showering, saying a quick prayer, and getting ready for the evening celebration,” she noted. “We lay out homemade diyas all around the periphery of the home (to be lit up in the evening), make rangoli decorations, food and desserts, like badam burfi and gulab jamun cheesecake.” 

And they’re participating in beloved rituals on a smaller scale

Reina Patel isn’t planning to sacrifice her usual traditions during Diwali in her Phoenix home. “We plan to practice all the traditions, albeit on a smaller scale and without the big parties and gatherings,” she said.

Every year for Kali Chaudas, the second day of the Diwali celebrations, “we fry food—a  way to symbolically rid ourselves of negative qualities and thoughts and try to burn them away in the hot oil,” she noted. Another tradition is to make mango lassi drinks which her kids adore. As for the religious ceremonies, “we will pray virtually and partake in celebrations via Zoom.”

In order for her kids to be involved in the holidays, they do a different art project every year for Diwali. “This year we plan to decorate candles with paint,” she said. 

Credit: Hema Natraju

They’re also ensuring that this Diwali still feels special for their children

Connecting with kids is an important part of Diwali. Aparna Dave of Houston, Texas, starts her Diwali celebrations with her daughter with a “mini-vacation to relax, read lots of books about the holiday, and clear our minds and hearts from what has been a stressful several months.” 

It is also customary to spend time clearing out the old and decluttering before Diwali, a tradition which Dave is wholeheartedly embracing. “I will be spending the next few days cleaning some of the main rooms and my office,” she said. 

For the festivities, she plans to make different kinds of rangoli involving chalk, cards, and paper plates. As a way to see the lights, she plans to take her daughter to the Houston zoo and later she will get together with her quarantine “bubble” for sparklers and dinner. 

Now is the perfect time to declutter and allow for new beginnings

For Priya Kapoor of Austin, Texas, Diwali preparations commence a few days before the actual holiday. “It begins with our family tradition that started when I was a little girl with all of us getting a new pair of shoes and deep cleaning and organizing the house,” she said. 

A festive breakfast awaits the family on Diwali. The house is decorated with fresh flowers and Kapoor has set up a mini-temple in a dedicated space in her kitchen. 

“We lay out a mat with vibrant colors and hints of gold and silver thread work scattered with colorful diyas and fresh flowers,” she said. “On it we set up a picture of my late father, and pictures and statues of deities like Lord Ganesha, Lakshmi, Ram, Sita, and Hanuman. We have a platter of tilakand rice, a jyot of diyas lit in ghee, and Indian sweets as an offering to the gods that we get to eat later.” We all gather here in the evening dressed up in our finest Indian clothes to do our rituals and prayers. 

Above all, they’re focusing on the light and moving toward the present

Families are doing what they can to preserve cultural traditions and rituals, spending time with their loved ones, and looking toward moving toward the light. Every year Darshana Patel in Scottsdale, Arizona, creates a beautiful rangoli outside of her home to welcome the  light, colors, and the indestructible spirit of Diwali. It is a way to say farewell to the past and herald new beginnings. “My kids will celebrate by doing mini-sparklers in the backyard,” she noted, adding that her family will eat together and find a way to include friends and family they can’t see in person. “We will call our loved ones who live far away to give and receive blessings.”

And it offers a reminder for all of us: The pandemic can’t dim the light, especially not on Diwali.