Watch: Families and friends prepare food for Diwali
Celebrations for Diwali begin in advance of the five-day festival. Making delicious traditional foods and sweets are a large part of the celebration.
Bucks County Courier Times
Mumbai natives Binoy and Reema Nazareth first came to the United States over 20 years ago. Their Diwali celebrations were quite different from back home in India, where every home was illuminated with lamps and lights.
The parents of three children say that’s largely because in the late 90s, Indian culture wasn’t as widely accepted or understood here as it is now.
“We used to go all the way to New Jersey to get our groceries, the ethnic food,” said Binoy, a Warrington resident who’s been married to Reema for 22 years.
“My uncles and aunts who came here in the 1970s had to drive two hours to get something that is even authentic,” he said.
When it came time to celebrate Diwali, the five-day festival of lights that honors the triumph of good over evil, neighbors were once confused by their decorations — especially the timing, normally nestled in somewhere around Halloween and Christmas.
Its occurrence each year follows the lunar calendar so there is no set date.
The festival is huge in India, and the Nazareths liken it to Christmas. This year, Diwali, which marks the start of the Hindu New Year, began Thursday.
“The first year, we lit the lamps outside, and (a neighbor) was like, ‘Why are you putting all these lights outside?’” Reema recalled one November, years ago. “We’d explain it to them, and they’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing.’”
Back then, it was tough to even find fellow Indians nearby. That’s now changed. Just a few houses down the road are at least two Indian families and friends of the Nazareths.
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As more immigrants moved to the U.S. over the past 15 or so years, the Indian population — and presence of Indian culture — has grown exponentially.
The U.S. Census includes people of Indian descent in its definition of Asian. In 2000, some 13,631 people identified with Asian origins lived in Bucks County and by 2010 that number jumped to 24,008 and in 2020 it had more than doubled to 35,216 people.
Those in the Indian community said they have gone from struggling to easily find familiar reminders of home to being able to pick up tea lights for Diwali from their local Target.
Local fireworks stores are even advertising the Diwali holiday, as firecrackers are a key part of celebrations.
The Nazareths credit the children born and raised stateside for contributing to the expansion and understanding of their customs in America.
“The culture is more widely accepted because the younger generation, the second-generation and third-generation kids over here, they’ve started growing up and they’re assimilated into this culture,” Binoy said. “Now, they’re going to the workforce or college.”
Schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University in Philadelphia even have dance troupes that perform Bollywood dances, he shared.
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“Everyone is widely accepting that culture now, and that’s probably how we’ve gotten where we are now,” Binoy said.
It’s helped that the younger generation isn’t afraid to speak up in support of their culture and keeping their traditions alive, like the New Hope-Solebury and Central Bucks students who recently fought to have a single day off for Diwali in their school districts.
Devika and Nagu Nambi, who live a couple of houses down from the Nazareths in Warrington, say their oldest son is part of a diversity and inclusion panel at Central Bucks West High School.
“He goes and learns stuff from other communities and friends, other races and nationalities,” Nagu said. “He is now at a point where he’s also able to say, ‘Hey, this is what we do,’ and bring friends over.”
Preparing for Diwali
Recognized by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, the common theme of Diwali is celebrating good over evil, despite the many existing stories of the holiday’s origins.
“There are different regions believing in different reasons,” said New Hope resident and Sri Lankan Hindu Shanthy Krishnarajah. In her culture, the holiday is celebrated on one day instead of five, and she calls it Deepavali.
“My younger daughter’s name is Jothika, and Jothi means light, so she actually tells people it’s a celebration of her, because Diwali is celebration of light,” she said.
Reema says there’s a story of a king killing a demon, and his village lights up their streets and homes on the darkest night of the year to ensure he finds his way back home.
“That’s why on Diwali Day, we light up our whole house, you won’t find a single corner that’s dark,” she said. “Anything evil that’s in your house, anything remotely negative, you just try to push it out of the house.”
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Preparations for the holiday can begin weeks in advance in some homes, and include making traditional sweets and foods and creating rangoli, a colorful, flowery form of art that symbolizes good luck. They’re usually placed outside of front doors.
“Every house you go to, you will find a rangoli,” Reema said.
Cleaning the home inside and out is the first step of preparations, she said, followed by making a variety of desserts and snacks.
Growing up as a child in Mumbai, Reema remembered the important task of taking the treats to other families in the neighborhood.
“Back in the day, we would make five or six kinds of things,” she said. “My mom would arrange it in a tray, and then it would be our job to take it to our neighbors.”
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Food — and lots of it — is a major part of the Diwali festivities.
The inviting aromas coming from families’ kitchens this time of year originate from traditional offerings like chickpeas; sweet gram flour balls called besan ladoo; a mixed-rice dish named biryani; a dessert made of cashews, refined butter and sugar, called kaju barfi; and a deep-fried bread called puri.
“Puri is like, you take a tortilla, you deep fry it in oil and then it’ll become puffed,” said Praveena Reddy, a neighbor of the Nazareths and Nambis.
Like Devika and Reema, Praveena is one of the organizers of Bucks County Diwali’s celebration on Saturday, where around 150 people gahter to enjoy food, music and entertainment at the St. Cyril of Jerusalem Social Hall in Jamison.
“Whoever lives in Warrington, they get to invite all their families and friends, and we can just congregate in one place,” Reema said. “We order all Indian food, (bring) the sweets that we are supposed to make, and we just get together.”
Building a community
Going from barely knowing another local Indian family to now being part of a community of at least 60 families, Devika says it’s “awesome” to share the joy and fun of Diwali celebrations with others, both from similar and different cultures.
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“It’s amazing how this country accepts everybody,” said Devika, who’s lived in the U.S. for 24 years. “It’s a mutual understanding, and everybody is there with you. It’s a great thing to have.”
Like their elders before them, the immigrant families want to ensure they instill in their own children the traditions of celebrating the festival of lights.
For Praveena, it’s a driving force behind her desire to spread awareness of the holiday in her community.
“If we don’t pass the tradition, then they won’t be able to pass the tradition,” she said.
She’s already seeing the impact of her influence on her daughter, Roma Reddy, who’s encouraged a friend from school and her family to attend the Bucks County Diwali celebration.
“I met the kid the other day, she was telling (us), ‘We all got clothes online, we are all so excited and ready to come to the event!’” Praveena said.
“That was really nice to see,” she said. “How I pass it on to them, that’s how it’s going to spread; otherwise it’s just going to be with us.”
Community Diwali celebration set for Sunday in Doylestown
Youth 4 Unity and Desis of Doylestown are organizing a Diwali Celebration with music, dancing, crafts and food at Burpee Park at 51 S. Church St. in Doylestown on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.
Desi community leaders as well as allies to the Desi community will be hosting the event that is fress to attend and open to all.
“Diwali is often ignored despite it being a major holiday for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists. We want to give the members of Doylestown the opportunity to experience the beauty of Diwali, the festival of lights,” an organizer said, “With support from the County of Bucks, NAACP Bucks County, Bucks County New Americans Advisory Commission, and many more influential organizations, we have seen how eager the community is for a Diwali celebration. So, we plan to make this Diwali celebration an annual event!.”
Participants are encouraged to dress in traditional South Asian clothes.