By this point, Seema Sharma’s neighbors in the Villages of Urbana know to expect her on their doorstep one day each autumn, smiling and bearing sweets.
For the 15 years she’s lived there, Sharma has made it a point to share the joy she feels during the festival of Diwali with her community. She wishes a happy holiday to all of her neighbors — even those who may not have heard of the celebration before.
On Saturday afternoon, a couple of weeks out from the big day, Sharma stood smiling out at about 100 people gathered in Urbana District Park — many of them children — dancing, eating and painting the traditional clay lanterns that are central to the holiday.
It was the first such event in Urbana, she said, and the idea had been “simmering” in her mind for some time.
“It’s great,” she said happily. “I think they’re having a good time.”
Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, a holiday celebrating the symbolic victory of good over evil. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu new year.
Each year, many Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others in India and beyond celebrate by painting diya, small clay lanterns that represent prosperity and protection for a person’s family. They’re filled with oil and lit with a cotton wick, and they glow from family homes and yards each Diwali.
For Sharma, beyond lots of twinkling lights, the holiday means sweets, firecrackers, family time and a fresh start. Many families clean their house meticulously ahead of Diwali as part of an effort to start anew, she said. Some even go so far as to put a fresh coat of paint on all their walls.
This year, Diwali is on Nov. 4. But preparations start long before, and Sharma wanted to give kids in the community time to make their own diyas well ahead of the celebration.
“Just like Christmas, we start preparing for it a month back,” Sharma said. “It has religious significance, but more than that, it’s a community significance.”
Suhaan Pastakia, a freshman at Urbana High School, said he looked forward to the food that Diwali brings each year.
“The one time our parents force us to eat the sweets,” he said with a laugh.
But more than that, Pastakia said, he appreciates the beauty and spirit of the holiday — the way it embraces moving forward as a community. He spoke with pride about the neighbors that surrounded him, evidently smiling from behind his mask.
“There’s so many colors, and it’s just such a vibrant community that we’ve built in Frederick,” he said. “We love when other people come to see. This is just a time for us to come together, no matter what we said last year, what we talked about last year — it’s a new beginning.”
Growing up in India, Vaidu Iyer just bought diyas at the local market, he said. As he sat helping his 4-year-old twins, Ojas and Iyer, paint their lanterns, he realized he’d never made his own.
“Seema has gone ahead and deconstructed this, what we get ready-made in our bazaars and markets in India,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s very relaxing.”
A few tables over, Urbana junior Manasi Tanikella sat quietly painting her diya purple and blue. She loves art, she said, and is excited by any chance she gets to create.
Like many others, she was looking forward to the desserts that Diwali brings. But she also spoke thoughtfully about the significance of the holiday to her family.
“It’s nice to bring the community together,” Tanikella said. “It’s a nice place to reflect on your thoughts.”