Diwali 101: how to celebrate the festival of lights

Shaminder Parmar started a Diwali 101 course to connect his culture and community — he explains the meaning behind the massive celebration.

The story and celebrations involved in the massive South Asian holiday

A man stands wearing green traditional Punjabi clothing, holding a one year old boy with curly hair, wearing a gold top and white pants. The baby is holding an LED candle with both hands as he looks into the camera. Left of them, a woman reaches out to the baby, wearing blue, pink and gold Punjabi dress smiling. They're in a kitchen with dark cupboards and light countertops, with candles and lights decorating the room.
Shaminder Parmar celebrates Diwali with his wife, Anne Parmar, and son, Ranveer Parmar. Parmar started a Diwali 101 course to teach his Edmonton community about the massive Indian holiday. (Jesse Khan)

Diwali is one of the largest celebrations among South Asian cultures and at least one Edmontonian is inviting others to join.

Shaminder Parmar runs a Diwali 101 course out of the Meadows Recreation Centre. After growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he wanted to bring more cultural openness to his home in southeast Edmonton.

"We have so many different communities here," Parmar told CBC's Radio Active. "But I don't think we know about each other as much as we could." 

Over two years he's presented to more than 2,000 people online and in person, answering the basics about the festival of lights. 

Diwali celebrations a kick-off October 24th, when the new moon is at its darkest. The festival is a celebration of light which often includes: fireworks. Shaminder Parmar is from the community of Laurel.

What is Diwali?

The word Diwali means "row of lamps" in Sanskrit.

It takes place in October or November as a multi-day celebration. This year the main date falls on Oct. 24 when the new moon is at its darkest. 

"The main purpose is light," said Parmar.

"So if you have light, if you have gatherings and if you have fun — those are the things you need for Diwali."

Where does it come from?

"The thing about India is that Diwali is celebrated a thousand different ways by many cultures for different reasons," Parmar said. "It's meant to be an inclusive celebration."

In Hindu, the holiday is a celebration of Lord Rama's victory against the demon King Ravana, and the focus is on celebrating the triumph of good over evil.

A man stands wearing a long sleeved printed floral tunic. He's on a laptop presenting out to an audience that's behind the camera. Behind him a TV screen is playing a powerpoint presentation, with a slide that says Diwali 101.
Shaminder Parmar runs his Diwali 101 course. Since he started in 2021, he's presented to more than 2,000 people about the history and meaning behind the festival of lights. (Submitted by Shaminder Parmar)

For adherents of Jainism, the holiday is about marking the achievement of nirvana for their Lord Mahavir, and celebrating knowledge.

The Sikh holiday Bandi Chhor Divas is also celebrated alongside Diwali, focusing on freedom and the triumph of goodness. Parmar says the name translates to "day of liberation."

How do you celebrate?

With a focus on light, there is no surprise that fireworks are involved — but Diwali celebrations are just as varied as the communities involved. 

Prayers and events are held at Hindu Mandirs and Sikh Gurdwaras around the world. 

"When they go to those religious places, they meditate, they volunteer in the community kitchen, they chant and sing hymns," said Parmar. 

Events start days before Amavaysa — the new moon day — and offerings are made, including sweets and goods.

A diya, candle, being lit outside of a Sikh temple in Whitehorse. Diwali. The lights represent the triumph of light over dark and the power of good over evil. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

There are secular activities too. In Rangoli, people use coloured powders or sand to create designs. While there are traditional patterns, there are also modern takes on the practice. 

"I've seen people make Superman," said Parmar.

People also make clay lamps called diyas and dress in colourful clothes. Across Edmonton, celebrations and dinners are held — even Diwali parties at nightclubs. 

"Light, gathering and fun are the three things," he said. "And the fun is the one that's so flexible and personal."

What's the deal with the desserts?

Edmonton restaurants and sweet shops produce millions of sweets each year for Diwali, filling decorated boxes.

"It's like in a lot of Western cultures you bring flowers for almost every occasion," explained Parmar. 

"In South Asian culture, if you don't bring sweets to a party or when a baby is born or whether there's a birthday, it's almost disrespectful."

Ganesh Sweets is an Indian sweet shop in southeast Edmonton that is packed during Diwali.

"Let's say whatever we do in a month, we would do that kind of volume in two days," said director Ashu Arora.

That works out to around 50,000 to 60,000 boxes of sweets a day.

A store is decorated for Diwali, with gold tassles hanging from the ceiling and purple helium balloons floating that say 'Happy Diwali'. More than a dozen shoppers navigate through stacks of sweets and boxes. In the front of the photo is a tray of twisted deep fried dough dipped in sugar syrup that's a bright orange colour.
Ganesh Foods, in Edmonton's Mill Woods neighbourhood, says during Diwali they do a months worth of business in a matter of days. The Indian sweets are a key part of the celebration. (Submitted by Ashu Arora)

Treats range from Burfi, a dense milk-based sweet, to Gulab Jamun, a deep fried doughnut made with rose water. Jalebi— a fried sweet made from maida flour — is soaked in milk and use as an offering in Diwali celebrations. 

"It's a collective day that everyone celebrates," said Arora. "So that's why it's such a big, big thing."

How can you appreciate (and not appropriate)?

Parmer stresses that Diwali is an inclusive festival.

The Vancouver Canucks released a special Diwali warm up jersey by artist Sandeep Johal, and locally the Edmonton Public School Board is working on a multi-faith calendar to include the holiday.

Born and raised in North America, Parmar only learned Western holidays in school. He says changes like these will hopefully inspire others to share their celebrations. 

Through Diwali 101 he's offering others an education he never got. 

"If this presentation existed when I was a kid, I would have learned so much more about my own culture and that would have been so much more confident in being who I am," he said.

"It's inclusive. You don't have to be of South Asian descent to participate in Diwali because the theme is just practicing goodness."

It's enough if you can engage with light, he says, and share some of your own this season.


Clare Bonnyman

Digital associate producer

Clare Bonnyman is a producer and reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked across the country and has expertise in digital reporting, audio production and podcasting. Clare won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2019 for sports feature reporting. She focuses on stories about sound and community. You can reach her at clare.bonnyman@cbc.ca.