As the year draws to a close and day-light grows shorter, all over the world there is a theme of celebrating light over darkness.
Diwali or Deepavali, a major Hindu festival signifying the victory of light over darkness, was observed on October 30th this year The five-day festivities concluded on the darkest, new moon night of the Lunar-solar month of Kartika in Bikram Sambat calendar. Millions of lights in earthenware- clay pots would have been lit outside doors, windows, around temples and communities. People wear new clothes, exchange gifts, offer sweets and seasonal specialities; create rangoli patterns on the floor. Ancient stories of the victory of good over evil are always told. In some parts of India, it is an occasion to mark Lord Rama's triumph over the demon-king Ravana. Lakshmi the Goddess of Light and Prosperity is especially worshipped during this time.
It is an official holiday in Burma, Fiji, Guyana, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
In a corner of the world in Wales, we lit lamps in coconut-halves, the latter offered to birds in the garden later. We had a traditional meal with treats, listened to chants, children played with sparklers and we wished everyone, ‘Happy Deepavali!’
We have always celebrated our tradition, enjoying both the Indian-western cultures. As we placed the ghee lamps outside the doors and lighted up the shrine and put on every light in our home, I could not help observing we may have to decorate it with cobwebs and pumpkins the next day on the 31st for Halloween and wished only for the children to dress-up and do the trick and treating!
When I looked up Halloween, I found its ancient Celtic roots in the Samhain (Samain) festival. In Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half of summer and the darker half of winter. At Samhain the division between this world and the other world was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass.
Similar to Diwali, where family’s ancestors were honoured the day before and invited home whilst evil spirits were warded off, this practise was also observed amongst the Celts. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities.
Christianity incorporated this day into the Christian calendar with All Saints on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd.
According to the writer, John Gilroy ‘Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival,’ The Hindu Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights occurs about the same time as Samhain marks the Celtic New Year. The Author asks, ‘Could it be that Diwali and Samhain have a common root in antiquity?’
All I know is that, during Diwali, we were always able to purchase fireworks because Halloween was just round the corner!
The Jewish festival of Light too falls around this time and because the Jewish calendar is lunar, it can happen from late November to late December. This year it will be observed from the evening of Saturday 24th December for eight days until the evening of January 1st. During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah(candelabra) called ‘hannukkiyah.’ There is a special ninth candle called the ‘shamash’ servant candle used to light the other candles. The shamash is often in the centre of the other candles and has a higher position.
Hanukkah is also a time for giving and receiving presents and gifts are exchanged on each night.
The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens on December 21st or 22nd. To Pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming and they had a festival to rejoice the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. In Scandinavia and some other parts of northern Europe, the Winter Solstice is known as Yule and this is where we get Yule logs. In Eastern Europe this festivities is called Koleda.
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place between 17th and 23rd of December, honouring the Roman god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means ‘birthday of the unconquered Sun’ and was held on December 25th, when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place, and it was also the ‘birthday’ of the Sun God Mithra – Indo-Persian ‘Mitra.’ The most popular hypothesis is that Roman soldiers encountered this religion during military excursions to these parts. In the religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday and is where that word must come from! In Hinduism, Sunday is ruled by the Sun.
When King Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, he had quite a challenge ahead of him to convert an empire full of pagans. It was simply decided that the birthday of the Sun God to be with the Son of God. In the Catholic Encyclopedia quotes an early Christian saying, “O how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born....Christ the Son should be born.”
However the festivals came about, as the days became shorter, all over the world different cultures marked the long drawing dark nights with celebrations of inviting light.
A reminder from Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi, the ‘Hugging Saint,’
“We are all beads strung on the same thread;” and “...when we let in light, darkness automatically ceases to exist...”
As we approach the New Year, much the same way as we observe Diwali, we will light lamps around our home to usher in the New Calendar, and we will offer prayers of:
‘Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bavanthu,’ remembering and wishing all beings to be well, in whichever worlds they may be and conclude with the universal prayer from Sanathana Dharma:
Asato maa Sadgamaya - From Untruth lead me to Truth
Tamaso maa Jyotirgamaya - From Darkness lead me to Light
Mrtyor maa Amrtamgamaya - From Unhappiness lead me to Happiness
Om Shanti; Shanti; Shanti - Om Peace; Peace; Peace
From Wales wishing all - ‘Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!’
Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year!