The push to observe Diwali in the U.S. – and why some remain skeptical

Impressive fireworks display at Edison, N.J. Diwali celebrations October 22, 2022. Photo: ITV Gold

When Alvira Tyagi was in elementary school in Albany, N.Y., and late October rolled around, she would watch staff members put up Halloween decorations and autumnal ornaments in the classrooms, hallways and “even the school buses.”

But for her, those traditions seemed to overlook another important holiday: Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that celebrates the spiritual triumph of good over evil.

“These Halloween decorations always seemed to clash timewise with the Indian festival season,” said Tyagi, 19. Based on the Hindu lunisolar calendar, Diwali typically falls in late October or early November. This year, it began on Oct. 24. In 2023, the five days of celebration will begin on Nov. 12.

“Celebrating Diwali meant, oftentimes, leaving it for the weekend or a brief ‘Happy Diwali’ in the morning,” she said. “Excluding Diwali from school cultural celebrations created an environment that was not inclusive of all identities.”

The Hindu festival of lights has grown beyond both Hinduism and India, and is now observed across South and Southeast Asia and celebrated by other religions, including Jains, Sikhs and Muslims. With the United States’ South Asian population growing – between 1980 and 2019, the Indian immigrant population grew 13-fold to more than 2.6 million – the holiday is also increasingly celebrated across America.

Hundreds of enthusiastic attendees pull out cell phones to take photos at the Oct. 24, 2022 White House Diwali celebrations as President Joe Biden, VP Kamala Harris, and First Lady Jill Biden enjoy the moment. Photo: Twitter @WHIAANHPI

Now, there are growing efforts to celebrate Diwali as an official holiday.

Observing Diwali in public schools is “very, very significant for students to be able to then engage in the poojas and the various rituals and celebrations that take place for those afternoons and evenings,” said Khyati Joshi, an education professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University whose work focuses on the intersection of race and religion in American life.

She added that some schools may close entirely or make accommodations for individual students. “There’s all these other kinds of levels that should be and can be built in to accommodate even if it’s only 10 students in the school.”

2017 Diwali celebrated at the White House in the Oval Office, Dec. 17, 2017.

In school districts with large South Asian American student populations, Diwali is already a holiday. In 2021, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia began to close schools for the holiday, and this academic year, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools followed suit. Other counties in the Washington area, including Virginia’s Prince William and Maryland’s Montgomery, gave students a day off during Diwali this year, although the latter did not specify Diwali as the reason and teachers still had to work. In Prince George’s County in Maryland, major events and activities cannot be scheduled on Diwali and other recognized religious holidays “to avoid excluding students, families and staff.”

In addition, about 23 school districts in New Jersey gave students a day off for Diwali this year, according to the Bergen Record, and other districts across the country, including in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, have done the same. Some districts, including Montgomery County in Maryland, are designating the days as “Professional Learning Days,” when teachers must work but students do not attend classes.

Last year, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday.

In part, the push to publicly observe Diwali is a reflection of the South Asian American community’s “coming of age,” and asking for greater recognition, Joshi said.

South Asian “communities [are] coalescing around issues to advocate for so that there is representation of who they are in this country,” she said. “And one of the ways to mark that is having your religious holidays recognized.”

Those efforts are making some progress in New York, where the South Asian population – in particular, Indian Americans – is one of the largest Asian populations across the state. In late October, New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) declared support for the city’s Department of Education to institute the observance of Diwali in the country’s largest public school district, pending the passage of state legislation.

State Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar (D) has introduced a bill to make Diwali a holiday in New York City’s public schools in lieu of Anniversary Day, created in the 1800s to commemorate the opening of the first Sunday schools in the city. The legislation has not yet passed in the legislature, although Rajkumar told The Washington Post she is confident it will. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) hasn’t said whether she would sign such legislation. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But some advocates say there’s still a lot of work to do before Diwali gains widespread recognition.

“There have been many, many promises made to our community over the years, particularly during campaign season, and yet, we have not seen this holiday come to fruition,” said Aminta Kilawan-Narine, a co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.

In the past, New York City organizers have called on high-ranking officials to make Diwali a public holiday, but failed to make much progress. “It felt like those conversations and that advocacy fell on deaf ears,” Kilawan-Narine said.

Sunita Viswanath, another co-founder of Sadhana and the co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, said the celebration of Diwali by public officials in New York City and across the country comes at an “interesting moment.”

Viswanath attended Diwali celebrations at the State Department and White House this year, and has previously attended celebrations at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the New York City mayor.

“We think it’s great, it’s fantastic,” Viswanath said of the movement to support the holiday’s public recognition. But she said she also worries that Hindu nationalists in the United States are capitalizing on the growing efforts to observe the holiday to support a right-wing agenda that discriminates against other religions, such as Islam.

While recognizing Diwali as a holiday and teaching about its significance in classrooms is admirable, there should be some limits, critics say.

Some educators, lawmakers and advocates say that to make up for setbacks during the coronavirus pandemic, more instructional time should be added to school calendars, including more school days, or longer ones; weekend and summer classes; and after-school programs that focus on intensive tutoring. Los Angeles school officials plan to add four optional Acceleration Days to the L.A. Unified School District’s calendar, despite facing pushback from the local teachers union.

Others say school closure is not the best way to observe such holidays. Instead, individual students could be given excused absences for Diwali or other accommodations, said Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists.

“What starts to become an issue is if you have to close the entire school for every single holiday, that’s where you get into problems,” he said, particularly since young people increasingly identify as nonreligious.

In addition to teaching about Diwali and other religious holidays, public schools should encourage the celebration of holidays that spotlight America’s “shared civic values,” such as Election Day, said Fish, and make similar accommodations for students who want to miss class to vote or to accompany their parents to the polls.

Tyagi, now a college sophomore, said she is excited about the prospect of wider recognition of Diwali.

“I really do hope that . . . students everywhere across the United States really get the chance to engage with the Hindu faith and traditions,” she said, “and share that on to peers as well who aren’t necessarily Hindu but could really gain from being . . . in a more culturally immersive environment.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here