British Columbia

Celebrating Diwali, festival of lights, amid so much darkness

Diwali is the South Asian celebration of light over darkness, of good over evil. And in a normal year, celebrations in Vancouver alone can draw crowds of 7,000 to 10,000 people. But this year, like so many things, the festival will look different.

Communities rally to translate public health messages, turn celebrations virtual as COVID-19 cases spike

Diwali celebrations shrink or go virtual for COVID-19

1 year ago
Pandemic restrictions force Diwali and Bandi Chor Divas celebrations to go virtual as the hard-hit South Asian community finds ways to come together for the holidays safely. 2:05

Diwali is the South Asian celebration of light over darkness, of good over evil. And in a normal year, celebrations in Vancouver alone can draw crowds of 7,000 to 10,000 people.

Like so many things during a pandemic, the festival celebrated this year on Saturday, Nov. 14, will look different.

Festival creative director Kriti Devan says, back in the summer, organizers toyed with the idea of physically distanced events. But as they saw the number of COVID-19 cases tick upwards, they pre-emptively pulled the plug on any kind of in-person celebration, focusing their efforts on creating a virtual experience.

And now, Devan says, her team is grateful for the foresight. Two of B.C.'s health authorities — Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health — are facing the province's strictest pandemic restrictions since the spring.

Cases have surged to alarming levels, particularly in the Fraser Health region. People are being told not to gather with anyone outside of their own household, and to avoid all non-essential travel in and out of the health authorities.

"Safety is first and foremost," said Devan. "We still want to educate, inspire, and share the light."

Culturally sensitive messaging

Festivals and informal celebrations across Canada are adapting. In Edmonton, a gurdwara that is expecting around 2,000 people is urging worshippers to wear masks, and will only let 15 people into the prayer hall at a time.

Sukhmeet Singh Sachal, a 26-year-old second-year medical student at UBC, is among those promoting the message to "spread lightness, not COVID-19" during Diwali.

He said back in the summer he noticed that, at his gurdwara in Surrey, few elders were masked, making him wonder whether B.C.'s public health messaging was accessible enough to those for whom the information could be life-saving.

"If you think about the Punjabi community, a lot of the elders don't speak English, and that's a concern because if you don't know the language of the information coming to you, you're not going to be able to understand it," he said.

That prompted Sachal to start the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative. With help from the Clinton Foundation, the organization creates messaging targeted toward Punjabi communities, including signs translating public health messages and a six-foot-long cardboard cutout mimicking the actual length of a turban to demonstrate physical distancing.

A volunteer for the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative sews a mask. (Submitted by the COVID-19 Sikh Gurdwara Initiative)

"That's where we came in, we're taking the language and translating it into Punjabi, but more so in a culturally relevant way," he said.

"I think people are now starting to take it more seriously, especially with cases increasing significantly in the Fraser Health region. I think people are now going okay, we need to stop this before it becomes even more of a problem."

Devan said the cancellation of in-person events is for some a tough pill to swallow, especially after a summer and early fall in which some aspects of life returned to normal. But organizers took cues from epic Bollywood films, asking performers and artists to film their performances in the outdoors and share them globally.

"There have been obviously mixed reactions to it, people are disappointed that they can't come together with family and friends like they normally do," she said.

"But at the same time a lot of people are encouraging others to have celebrations at home — Diwali dance parties online, virtual poetry readings — to keep that sense of community."

Diwali is the South Asian celebration of light, featuring music, dance and food. Festivals can draw thousands of people over several days. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

She said Diwali fashion has also been taken to "another level" this year, with designers creating masks to match Diwali outfits, some retailing for hundreds of dollars.

Sachal said the creativity — from Diwali masks to virtual celebrations — show the significance the celebration takes on, and the extent to which people try to do the right thing when health messaging reaches every community.

"People are trying to adapt to things constantly. I think that's why it's so important to spread the message stay home to Diwali and celebrate that way, because again, Diwali is all about spreading light, not darkness."

Both Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health have listed Diwali-specific recommendations. These include:

  • Only celebrating with people you live with in your home. Do not invite guests.
  • Connect virtually with extended family. Say no to invitations.
  • Wear a mask when shopping for gifts, decorations, food.
  • Join live-streamed prayers instead of visiting the temple in person and light the Divaa or Diya at home.
  • Share food safely. If you are preparing festive meals for your household, use individual servings, and place sweets and appetizers on separate plates for each person.