What Is Diwali?: Five Days of Celebrating Peace and Light

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Diwali, also called Deepavali, is known as the Festival of Lights. Filled with joy and incredibly family-oriented, it’s a holiday for everyone to enjoy—a celebration of peace, prosperity and the triumph of good over evil. The story of its origin varies from place to place, but it always features a heroic character defeating a demon. There are family gatherings, fireworks, amazing food and gifts all around. 

If you’re looking to join in the fun or you want to recognize Diwali because someone you know is celebrating, we’ve got you covered!

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The Origins of Diwali  

“Historically speaking, Diwali marks the victorious return of King Rama to India after the war with King Ravana to virtuously rescue his queen,” said Hallmarker Sapna K. 

The name Diwali literally comes from the Sanskrit term dipavali, meaning “row of lights,” and the festival symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. It also celebrates family and friends, with a special emphasis on the bonds between sisters and brothers. 

The focus on light comes from the story of the holiday that’s been passed down through history:

“It is said that each family lit up their home in India to celebrate this righteous event and to lead the way from South India to North India where the capital was. Even to this day, Diwali is celebrated early in the morning in the southernmost states of India and at night in the northern states.”

Who celebrates Diwali?  

It’s important to know that Diwali isn’t just a Hindu holiday. People of Sikh and Jain faiths celebrate it, and it’s observed in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and other places with large Indian or Hindu populations. 

“India, being a culturally rich and diverse country, celebrates several festivals—one every month, or more—depending on which state, region, or caste one was born into and sometimes married into,” Sapna said.

The caste system in India divides citizens into classes based on their income, ranging from poor to wealthy. However, the celebration of Diwali is shared equally among all castes. 

“It is truly a time when neighbors, friends and even non-friends come together to greet one another, buy sweet treats for one another and celebrate with fireworks across the country with absolutely no inhibitions or religious barriers whatsoever,” Sapna said. 

But can you still celebrate Diwali, even if you’re not in South Asia or observe a religion that celebrates it? That’s a big YES.

“I personally know of so many non-Hindus that partake in the entire spirit of Diwali,” Sapna said. “This is something every single person—all walks of life—in India shares the joyful spirit about. No exceptions!”

Five days and nights of festivities  

The majority of people who observe Diwali celebrate for five days. The five-day long Diwali festival began in India and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. Each day has a specific focus, but they all revolve around family, goodness and fun. 

“During my childhood days, one week before the main festival I could see the vibes in my house: getting ready by cleaning the house, my mother preparing all the handmade sweets, and buying the fireworks,” Hallmarker Rakesh C. said. 

“I remember the best memories of my childhood during this festival…I still laugh at myself…how I lit the firecracker early morning on the festival day and reminded everyone, ‘Hey wake up everyone, Diwali is here!’” 

Over the course of the festival, celebrants gather to shop and decorate, hold feasts, light fireworks, observe rituals and offer up prayers called puja. 

“Everyone was eager to wait until dark so that they could celebrate with firecrackers and, honestly, I didn’t see much difference when it came to age,” Rakesh said. “I’d see every elderly parent along with the younger family members enjoying the festival to the fullest. It is so colorful, and the sky is filled with multiple colors and bright lights to make it even more special.”

The five days of Diwali break down like this: 

Day 1: Dhanteras

The Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped and shopping is a big focus. Celebrants also clean and decorate their homes to prepare. 

“Families aim to bring good fortune into their homes by buying things made of pure metals such as gold, silver or steel to invite Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, into their homes and bring good fortune until the next Diwali,” Hallmarker Jaya C. said.

Day 2: Naraka Chaturdashi

Also known as Choti Diwali, this is a day centered around ceremonial bathing, with aromatic oils that are used symbolically to remove impurities. New clothes and rangoli designs are part of the celebration, too. 

Day 3: Lakshmi Puja

This day is the main part of the holiday and consists of a prayer (the name of which is also Lakshmi Puja) that invites prosperity and good fortune into the home. Oil lamps and candles are placed around the house. 

“Now, after coming to the U.S., I still follow the same traditions and culture, and I visit temple along with my family on the festival day and if the temple staff allows, we light the firecrackers within the premises,” Rakesh said. 

“Hindu temples here also organize different events where kids can participate in cultural programs, dance performances, rangoli competitions and stage shows. I try to educate my kids always on the importance of the Indian festivals and how they originated. During evening hours, we plan for a get-together, with puja (worshipping prayers to God) and then end up having potluck celebrations.”

Feasting and fireworks are also a big part of the fun, though the kinds of fireworks used during the celebration have evolved over the years.

“In the old days, there were literally no laws for noise or pollution control, so us kids literally ‘had a BLAST!’” Sapna K. said. “These days, there is more awareness and caring for the environment and safety, so there’s been quite a bit of change in the type of fireworks being used. However, I see no change in the spirit that resonates across India [during Diwali].”

Day 4: Govardhan Puja

Also known as Padva. This is the first day of the new year in the Hindu calendar. Friends and family get together to exchange gifts and greetings of the season. 

According to Sapna K., the Diwali shopping and entertainment experience is similar to the retail focus in the U.S. during the holiday season. 

“Some people save up to buy new clothes just once a year, and that is during Diwali. The Diwali sale lasts an entire month across most retail outlets. The shopping spirit lasts over a month—something like Black Friday sales.”

“The entertainment industry is also an extremely important influencing factor as cinema, commercials and music launch or release Diwali specials every year.”

Day 5: Bhai Dooj

On the last day of Diwali, sisters invite their brothers to a lavish meal and brothers give their sisters gifts. And there are more fireworks—the literal kind, not the family friction kind. Diwali is all about peace and goodness!

“I have also noticed family feuds getting settled during this time, owing to the overall intention of calming down and being thankful,” Sapna K. said. “Diwali season is one time of the year that I LOVE to be in India. I cannot do this every year. But whenever I can, I embrace the opportunity and thank the universe for making it happen.” 

As a fun, happy, family-oriented occasion that welcomes all walks of life, Diwali can be enjoyed by people who grew up in a culture that observes it, as well as friends and family who are new to it. 

And with the decorations, the feasting, the gifts and, of course, the fireworks, there’s truly something for everyone.