Considering it’s known as the “Festival of Lights,” I’d always thought Diwali was all about the fireworks. When an Indian friend heard I was going to be in the country for the holiday, he invited me to spend it with his family in Chennai, capital of India’s southernmost state, Tamil Nadu. Suddenly, I found myself a fly on the wall of a traditional family celebration… and realised there was much more to Diwali than sparklers and skyrockets.
1. Waking up before the crack of dawn
On the night before Diwali, I nearly laughed when I was told by my host family that we’d be rising at 3:30 the next day. Yes, that is a.m. Apparently there’s no time to waste in starting the celebrations.
2. Performing a puja ceremony
The history of Diwali originates with Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura, so the holiday begins with a special puja, or ritual ceremony, to celebrate the victory of light over darkness.
3. Looking good is a must
There is no lounging around in your pyjamas on Diwali. The puja ceremony ends with handing out a new outfit to each person—new saris for the girls, dress shirts for the guys—which you immediately go and change into. This represents a fresh start for the new year.
4. Sweets, treats and other Diwali eats
From fresh rice idli and crunchy snacks to sweets made from ghee and coconut, your taste buds definitely aren’t left out when it comes to celebrating Diwali.
5. Who am I kidding? It’s all about the fireworks.
They don’t call Diwali the “Festival of Lights” for nothing. Days before the holiday itself, the booms and echoes of firecrackers begin to fill the air, culminating to a grand finale after the puja is finished. Everyone then takes to the streets, lighting sparklers to set off sizzling stars, sparkling wheels, and flower pots, as well as exploding huge tubes of confetti.
*These traditions are based on the Hindu celebration of Diwali, and are also partly specific to southern India. The holiday takes on many forms across the world!