A candlelight in the dark are a common symbol in Diwali used to represent the defeat of good versus evil.

Diwali is an important religious holiday which originated in India, spreading not only to surrounding Asian countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar but also to Western countries including Canada and the United States.

Many non-celebrators equate the holiday to a “Hindu Christmas,” a festive day of fireworks and tasty food, and the “festival of lights,” or a dancing festival.

However, despite its prominence, few of these non-celebrators can accurately explain why Diwali exists.

Lauren Markoe from the Huffington Post ascribes this problem not only to Americans lacking the initiative to learn, but also for Hindus not being willing to advertise the event.

The name “Diwali” is a shortened version of the word Deepavali, which means “a row of lights.” Though an extremely complex holiday whose exact practices, names, and origins draw on the place where it is practiced, several general facts are true:

Each year, Diwali starts in approximately late October or early November (the exact date depends on the Indian calendar), on a day called Dhanatrayodashi (in Sanskrit, also known as Dhanteras in Hindi). It roughly translated to “wealth day.”

Hindus celebrate this holiday with various activities such as eating special Diwali food, firecrackers, lighting lamps, decorating one’s house with lights, going to a temple, praying to the goddess Lakshmi, fasting, and visiting friends and relatives.

This five-day festival culminates in Bhaubeej, a day of gift-giving and family unity which honors the bond between brother and sister. Throughout this period, Hindus light fire-lit lamps called deepas, the source of the appellation “festival of lights.”

However, Hindus aren’t the only ones that practice Diwali. Jains celebrate it as the day when one of their most iconic figures, Lord Mahavira, attained nirvana, while Sikhs celebrate it as the day when the Mughals released their Sixth Guru, Haragobind, from prison.

But more important than the diversity of celebration is Diwali’s central theme: the triumph of good over evil and of light over darkness, as noted by Michelle Obama at the 2013 White House Diwali Celebration.

In the aftermath of events targeted towards South Asians such as post-9/11 hate crimes and the Oak Creek massacre, Diwali is a crucial time for celebrators and non-celebrators alike to reflect upon the dark times of the past and how they can work together for intercultural understanding.

Photo by Cresonia Hsieh.