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Celebrating Light in a Dark Year on Diwali

I’m not particularly religious, but I love Diwali. As a child in New Jersey, this Hindu celebration meant opening gifts, sharing mithai sweets, dressing up and placing diya lamps along our walkway so that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, could find her way to our home on the night of the new moon. As an adult, and now a parent, the rituals are much the same: In recent years, not far from where I grew up, we have painted diyas, hosted open houses, read books and assembled cookie boxes — I’m the family confectioner, and I prefer baking to mithai-making — in celebration of the holiday.

The symbolism of Diwali — the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair — continues to resonate, and seems particularly salient this year, when a public health crisis has disrupted our lives beyond recognition, caused so much disappointment, and wrought an incomprehensible number of deaths in our communities and our country.

This family celebration will look markedly different from years past: There will be no large gatherings and no swapping of sweets with loved ones. (I’m also more cautious than many of my peers, as my 8-year-old daughter and I live with my parents.) We will mail, rather than hand-deliver, our treats, and create new traditions, like planting bulbs in the backyard that will bloom in the spring to represent the passage of another year. Ritual and celebration have helped us weather other periods of disruption and displacement, and I’m eager to revel in the comfort and joy and hope of Diwali — on Nov. 14 this year — even as it seems the world is falling apart around us.

“Celebration is vital for surviving times of uncertainty and sadness,” Nina Vasan, a psychiatrist in private practice, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and chief medical officer of Real, a therapy app, assured me. “Rituals strengthen the bonds between children and parents, offer comfort, create shared memories — which, in the time that we’re living in, is really critical.”

Nidhi Chanani, an Indian-American artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the illustrator of a recently released picture book, “Binny’s Diwali,” feels the weight of marking the holiday in these tumultuous times. “We can’t let everything that’s happening take away our ability to create joy,” she said. This year, Chanani’s Diwali will be scaled down. It will still involve diyas prepared by her 5-year-old and sweets procured from a nearby South Asian grocer, but she and her family will celebrate only with their pandemic bubble, a handful of families that have been socializing regularly since July, rather than their wider circle of friends.

“Despite all these things going on, we have each other, and we can celebrate this thing and have some fun and make it special,” Chanani said. “We’re in trauma now and we’re going to have some post-traumatic things to sort through, but I think that the ultimate grief would come if we just stopped.”

Families are also using this unusual year not only to reaffirm their family traditions, but also to create new ones. Mohan Ambikaipaker’s family’s Diwali is a tribute to his Malaysian-Sri Lankan-Tamil upbringing and his New Orleans home. “The hospitality vibe of Diwali is big for us,” said Ambikaipaker, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Tulane University and a parent of two. He described this year’s celebrations as “nuclear-oriented and virtual-oriented.”

Ambikaipaker’s daughter Mallika, 11, has taken the lead in planning her family’s rituals. Some will be old, like sculpting diyas with her mother, who is an avid potter; others will be new, like a Diwali Zoom gathering or a drive-by.

“Diwali means just being together and having an excuse to see people and celebrate with them,” Mallika explained. “It’s important to celebrate it in times of uncertainty because it gives people an opportunity to feel a bit of stability and a break from whatever’s going on.”

Indeed, involving children in reimagining what the holiday will look like now “gives kids a sense of leadership and belonging and empowerment around being able to create the traditions that resonate with them,” added Vasan, and it can temper families’ unmoored feelings.

Yet other families are drawing attention to social, political and economic inequalities that the pandemic has laid bare, in culturally specific ways. Leena Trivedi-Grenier, a food writer in the San Francisco Bay Area and parent of three, will make Mysore pak, a ghee-drenched sweet, at her children’s request and invite her father to lead prayers over FaceTime; she will also encourage her eldest child to consider the meaning of the holiday.

“The message this year is that good can triumph evil, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Trivedi-Grenier said. “I want my 9-year-old daughter to not be afraid to stand up for people whose rights have been taken away or never have had rights in the first place. I want to use Diwali as a way to show her that it is worth the fight.”

Navdeep Singh Dhillon, a Jersey City-based writer and parent of two who is currently living in central California with his parents, marks not only Diwali, as his partner is Hindu, but also Bandi Chhor Divas (“The Day of Liberation”), as he is Sikh. The holiday coincides with the day of Diwali. His daughter, Kavya, 10, is looking forward to mithai, arts and crafts, and her paternal grandmother’s cooking, she told me, but Dhillon will also remain attuned to current events as the family celebrates.

“Diwali celebrates good over evil and with Bandi Chhor Divas, it’s emancipation,” he said. “We like to talk about things like people in detention centers in the midst of the celebration, just to sort of be mindful of that.”

The imagery of light and dark isn’t unique to Diwali; such dualities exist across literatures, cultures and faiths, and it can be uplifting to celebrate that shared humanity during this time, Vasan said. As for embracing those coexisting, contradictory themes, Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said that celebrations “allow us to feel glimpses of connection during periods of isolation. We can feel isolation and pain, but also find joy and meaning. Learning to find and hold onto the good with the bad is what makes us grow. It’s part of what makes us resilient.”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.

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