How Hamilton families are keeping Diwali traditions alive in the pandemic

·4 min read

Every Diwali, Jayashree Dighe’s home is lit with strings of glowing lights outside her home as well as the bright faces of her 20-odd relatives inside.

It’s how the 75-year-old celebrates the holiday after coming to Canada more than 50 years ago. But with the COVID-19 pandemic derailing holiday gatherings for most of the year, Diwali will be no exception. Still, Dighe plans to make it special.

Diwali is a popular Hindu holiday known as the Festival of Lights. It’s celebrated in myriad ways by communities across South Asia. Many begin their celebrations — which traditionally last five days — on Nov. 12. Diwali is symbolic of the fight between good and evil, something which a representative from the local temple says especially resonates during the pandemic.

“We should put our community interest ahead of our self-interest,” said Mani Subramanian, communication co-ordinator for the Hamilton Hindu Samaj Temple.

On Nov. 9, the city reminded Hamilton residents to hold Diwali celebrations within public health guidelines.

“This year, please remember that the safest way to celebrate Diwali is to do so virtually and to keep gatherings to only those within your household,” said Mayor Fred Eisenberger in a statement.

“There is still a formal declared state of emergency,” said the statement on behalf of the 11 largest municipalities in the GTHA. “We hope reflection on this will lead to even more determined compliance with public health advice in light of concerning case counts in many places.”

Every year at the temple, a Diwali service would be followed by a celebration with fireworks and a fundraising dinner with the broader community, says Subramanian, who’s also one of the founding members of the temple.

This year, the in-person temple service will be limited, but there will be a Facebook livestream instead so the whole community, including seniors, can celebrate from home.

Back in India, Dighe fondly recalls her whole family getting together at her aunt’s house during the three weeks of holidays for Diwali. They’d do fireworks, make rangoli — an art form with elaborate patterns created on the floor of a person’s home using colourful powder. And of course, they’d decorate the house with lights.

This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions and the large number of seniors in her family, they won’t all be getting together with her two daughters, six grandchildren, in-laws and other extended family in and around Hamilton.

She’ll still be making traditional food and sweets, which she plans to send to family.

“In India, the presents were not material presents ever, they were always the exchange of food,” she said.

Indu Singh agrees. To help teach her kids about traditional Diwali celebrations, she took her kids to India to celebrate more than a decade ago. The kids saw decorated stores and firework shows in every home. But the 62-year-old president of South Asian Heritage Association of Hamilton Region says Diwali celebrations have changed over the generations in India, too. The holiday is more commercial, she says, noting gifts are exchanged and people spend heavily on fireworks.

For her part, she’s kept up traditions in Canada since she came here more than 25 years ago. She made her own sweets and decorations since they weren’t available elsewhere back then. She says there’s more awareness in Canada now though. Local grocery stores will sell sweets and decorations and even have special “Diwali sales.”

Part of Singh’s celebration also involved sharing the holiday with friends of different faiths who she’d invite to a meal and to help put up lights around her home. Her kids would often take samosas and sweets to work to share with their colleagues.

Although her gathering this year will be restricted to her household, she and her family are still keeping busy decorating their home.

“I enjoy more with my kids, teaching them” she said.

Smita Upadhaya, a 37-year-old originally from Nepal, also wants her kids to recognize the importance of Diwali, which they call Dipawali. She says it’s challenging to teach them the traditions while growing up in a completely different environment.

“I have tried to teach them to respect all the other festivals, too,” in Canada, she says, noting they celebrate Halloween and Christmas together.

For Diwali, her family takes time off school and work to celebrate.

They make sel, a common type of bread traditional in Nepal, in the form of a large ring-shaped pastry made with rice flower.

Her kids make rangoli art and have firecrackers at home. In the evening, they go to the temple.

In Nepal, “you could smell the festive season,” Upadhaya says. “I really want my kids to carry it on.”

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator