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Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

Diwali Celebration in the White House and its Cultural Significance

Diwali, or Deepavali, is the Festival of Lights celebrated by millions of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists in various South Asian countries. In India, Diwali is one of the largest and most important holidays of the year, as the holiday symbolizes light and clarity over darkness and the triumph of hope over evil. It is celebrated with family and friends as they exchange gifts, light candles and oil lamps, and set off fireworks. This past Monday, October 24, this religious holiday was celebrated in Washington D.C. as the Bidens hosted the largest Diwali celebration ever held in the White House

President Biden was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, who also held a reception this past Friday in honor of the holiday. Harris set a number of milestones in the history of U.S. politics, as she was not only the first African American female to hold the position, but also the first Asian American vice president, being of Indian descent. She spoke of her own fond memories of celebrating Diwali throughout her childhood, recalling how she and her family would travel to India and celebrate in the streets with lit sparklers. 

Addressing the attendees of the event, Harris remarked, “Diwali is a holiday of hope. As with so many cultures, Diwali reminds us to see the light in our world, in each other, and in ourselves.” Although Diwali has been celebrated by the White House since 2003 with President George W. Bush, this year’s celebration was notable because of Vice President Harris’s personal connection to the holiday. As the highest Indian American office holder in the U.S., her presence reinforced the importance of representation in politics. A White House staff member noted that Harris’s presence and the large-scale celebration “will allow young people to grow up in a world knowing that they can be anything and they can celebrate where they come from with pride." 

Among the audience were prominent Indian American figures such as Representatives Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi, actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. They watched on and celebrated as President Biden lit a diya, which is a tea light symbolizing the embrace of positivity. 

Diwali continues to become more mainstream in the United States, as Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country as projected by Pew Research Center. Indian Americans account for 21% of the population of 4.6 million Asian Americans. Today in America, decorations and greeting cards specifically for Diwali can be found in many stores.

President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden made several remarks of appreciation regarding the holiday, noting it as an ode to the South Asian American community and South Asian immigrants. The president thanked these communities for “reflecting the soul of who we are as a nation” but also mentioned the instances of racism and xenophobia against the Asian community over the years. He stated, “Immigrant families were vilified and shamed…as a prelude to what was to come at the time.  Yet, that night, that Diwali night, we gathered together to cast a light of hope and belonging and purpose.” 

As this five-day celebration of lights, colors, and festivities continues, it is important to not only appreciate the cultural significance of this festive holiday but also to reflect on President Biden’s words in an effort to feel the power of community and upbringing of light, which is exactly what Diwali stands for.

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