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Last night, more than 300 guests celebrated Diwali.

Often called the Hindu New Year, Diwali is a five-day festival of lights that's celebrated throughout India and the Indian diaspora.

For the second year, South Asian Women of Evanston (SAWE), organized the event and invited the entire community--and they showed up!

Because it follows the lunar calendar, the start of Diwali falls on a different date each year. This year, the holiday begins on October 27.

In honor of the holiday, I asked two Evanstonians, both of whom are members of SAWE, to tell us about more about the holiday, how they celebrated Diwali as children, how they celebrate with their families today, and what makes the holiday special for them.

Here's Anu Dewan and Geeta Maker-Clark.

Anu ...

"Diwali, a five-day festival of lights, originates from Hinduism and is celebrated throughout India and the Indian diaspora. Over time, Diwali has become a national festival marked by most Indians, regardless of faith. It signifies the victory of good over evil and is particularly associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Clay lamps, or diyas, are lit throughout homes to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness.

"Diwali also marks the beginning of the fiscal year in India.

"When I was young, soon after my family had emigrated to the US, Diwali was celebrated minimally. I’m not sure if this was due to Diwali not being widely recognized, or simply because my parents didn’t have the time to celebrate it because they were so busy working. Regardless, the celebration was small, as was the Indian community we had to celebrate it with.

"My most significant memory of celebrations as a child is of excitedly running throughout the house, turning on all the lights (even in the bathrooms and closets) followed by engaging in family prayers, and afterwards, indulging in sweet jalebisdoused in milk. It was an hour-long celebration, if that.

"In my mid-20s, I had the opportunity to live in India with my grandmother in the Fall, during the time of Diwali. Witnessing how it was celebrated in India -- festively lit homes and streets, shops intricately decorated and flashing “Special Diwali Sale” signs, neighbors randomly showing up at your door with sweets and gifts, and streets wild with fireworks late into the night -- I was mesmerized and completely enchanted. I promised myself I would celebrate it with equal vigor one day, when I had a family of my own in the US.

"I wanted my children to experience the emotions I experienced while celebrating Diwali in India.

"The importance of this holiday and the value I believe it represents -- celebrating your personal inner light that guides your path to make just and moral decisions -- is what my journey as a Hindu is about, and one I want to pass onto my children.

"Today, my family (two teenage children, my husband, and myself) celebrate Diwali with as much gusto as we can create. The children receive gifts, we engage in prayer, set intentions, and make sure we celebrate with plenty of sweets and sparklers. My home is decorated with lights on the inside and the outside by early November, well before any winter holiday lights are making their way onto other homes.

"And, since moving to Evanston, we have found a South Asian community that is longing to celebrate Diwali in similar ways, for which we are truly grateful.

"I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share this important holiday with the larger Evanston community. As a member of SAWE, my hope is to widen the understanding and recognition of a culturally significant holiday that is celebrated by many South Asians in and around Evanston.

Who knows, maybe one day it will be an official Evanston holiday? Here’s to shining a light on that!"

Here's Geeta ...

"Diwali is a time of great celebration for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world ... a time filled with lights, color and family time.

"In our Hindu mythology this was the time that Lord Rama was able to recover his beloved wife Sita from the forces of evil after she was kidnapped to a forest for many years. He did this with the help of his devoted friend Lord Hanuman and when they all returned home, their path was lit with small candles called diyas, to light their way back.

"It is also known as a time of worship to the Goddess Lakshmi who represents abundance, wealth of spirit and joy, as well as financial wealth, and health.

"In India, Diwali is a day off of work and school, and the streets are alive with vendors selling Diwali decorations- thousands of clay pot diyas, garlands, cloths and textiles, Lakshmi silver coins (there is one day of the festival where you are supposed to buy something silver).

"Lights are strung from one side of the street to the other. Fireworks start pretty early, so there is a lot of noise. Neighbors and family often deliver beautiful boxes of mithai (sweets) and dried fruits and nuts to each other. People get dressed up in their finest attire and, if possible, they wear something new.

"I grew up in Chicago and a few suburbs of Chicago, and we were the only Indian family wherever we lived. This was before the Internet could easily alert you to the dates and times of every lunar holiday, so my mom would often call her sister in India to find out when Diwali was--and then put it on the calendar for us.

"Since we never had the day off school, had no other family in the US, and no one celebrating in our community, our celebrations were often small , at-home affairs.

"We would sit on the floor together and do puja, exchange gifts, and call India and talk to everyone in our huge family as quickly as possible, because it was so expensive to call!

"It was a little sad, to be honest, because I never could discuss or share it with friends, and it felt sort of private and contracted. But we did always look forward to Diwali gifts and the great food my mom would cook.

"We are so fortunate now to have our family nearby, that there are more Hindu temples for us to get to, and that the Indian community is not as far away as it was when we were growing up.

"For me, it was absolutely vital that our children grew up with Diwali as the best of all the holidays they celebrate!

"We are a multi-racial family, so we celebrate Christmas as well, but since Christmas gets so much hype, we decided to make Diwali as energized as we could.

"I wanted my children to have the Diwali that I couldn't, surrounded with family, happiness, community acknowledgment, time off from work and school. So now we always get together with my parents, friends, my brother and his family who live in Evanston, and celebrate with a great Indian meal.

"We wear something festive and colorful and clean! I have given a Diwali presentation at the kids' school for the last 14 years, and now many of my kids' classmates are aware of Diwali and often will do an Indian craft as a school with us.

"At home, we do a Lakshmi puja--a ceremony where we all sing/chant together and then we each set some hopes for the coming year and set a family intention as well. Sparklers are always fun to have, and a big part of the way we celebrate in India. We exchange gifts and the kids always get a new book as one of those gifts.

"It feels deeply meaningful to have connection to our ancestors and the ways that they have passed down the rituals and the love of our rich culture. By celebrating Diwali, and all of our many other holidays , we're able to connect to that lineage and that binding love.

"For my parents, leaving India left a huge chasm. They did the best they could to show us our culture, despite having no-one else to mirror it or to join them during times of great joy like Diwali. To be here, with them, with my brother and sister-in-law, with my children, their cousins, and the many wonderful Indian friends we have in Evanston now, it feels like we are closing that chasm and healing, as well as truly respecting this amazing culture and religion that we were born into.

"Diwali is as wonderful as the people around you! It is so much fun to dance and eat and talk, and get dressed up in colorful Indian clothes, I want my community here to be a part of the joy and experience. It's vital that we see each other, all of us, not just a polarized dynamic of white and Black. Through these events we can share our happiness and better understand each other.

"Maybe someday it will be a day off of school in Evanston schools, or at least on the calendar!"

At EPL: you’ll hear the story of Ramayana & Ravenna and make lanterns (diyas); do a library-version of Rangoli (sand art); Henna Artist, Lakshmi Kamath, trained in Mumbai, will be at the Main Library while Shruti Vijay will supply henna skills at the branches.

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