Holi is a holiday celebrated by millions of Hindus around the world, from India and Pakistan to Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States. It falls on the purnima, or full-moon day of Phalguna, which is the last month of the Hindu lunar calendar (usually around February or March), and it is a joyous, vibrant celebration of color.
Though the holiday has been commercialized with all sorts of marathon events like the Color Run, it’s actually rooted in a sacred love story between two deities, and it’s one of the biggest festivals of the year. So, whether you’re observing the ancient spiritual tradition yourself, or celebrating with a friend, here are eight things to keep in mind about how to celebrate Holi.
1. Holi is known as the Festival of Colors
Holi is a spring festival that’s widely known as the Festival of Colors, as it involves the throwing of gulal (colored powder) and water. It’s celebrated around the world, and though the origin story of the holiday varies from region to region, Holi is everywhere all about love, goodness, and welcoming positive energy back into your life.
2. How long does Holi last?
Holi is actually a two-day festival. Before the main Holi, there is Holika Dahan or Choti Holi (“small Holi”), where people gather around bonfires to sing and dance to let go of any negative thoughts and actions from the previous year. All sorts of things are thrown into the flames, including wood, leaves, and even food, like coconut and chickpeas. Choti Holi is a release — it’s permission to start anew and overcome any lingering negative energy. The ritual is also done in remembrance of the burning of the demoness Holika, one of the most popular Holi stories.
3. Holi represents the triumph of good over evil
According to the story of Holi, the evil king Hiranyakashipu thought himself to be a god — a being above any laws or moral code. He expected everyone else to regard him in the same way too. However, his five-year-old son Prahlad was a devout worshiper of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu hated Vishnu, as he had killed his brother, Hiranyaksha. So, once Hiranyakashipu discovered that his son openly worshipped his brother’s killer, he grew angry. He couldn’t shake his son’s devotion to Vishnu, so he decided to have the boy killed after failing to do so himself. He called upon his sister, Holika — whose powers included being protected from agni (fire) — and asked her to take his son into the fire pit with her, where he would burn. Or so Hiranyakashipu thought. Regardless, Prahlad entered the fire willingly. Vishnu, ever eager to protect his followers, prevented Prahlad from being hurt and reversed Holika’s power so that she burned to ashes instead.
Though this tale is a bit grim, it serves as a reminder of the innate power of good over evil and of that strength that resides in those who behave with good intentions despite any hardships life throws their way.
4. Holi celebrates the arrival of spring
Holi marks the arrival of spring and is an invocation for a flourishing harvest season, as Holi falls around the time that many people in India harvest wheat. On the night before Holi, it’s tradition to roast holuk, a blend of gram, wheat, and other grains as thanks for a good harvest.
5. Holi honors the love between Radha and Krishna
Another popular — and much more wholesome — Holi origin story involves Krishna and his beloved Radha, the goddess of love and devotion. Krishna has blue skin and, one day, decided to ask his mother about it. She responded with a joke, saying that if he threw different colors on Radha’s face, he could change her skin tone to whatever color he wanted. So, he went around the village and smeared color on Radha’s face, so the two looked alike. And of course, it worked. Now, the throwing of colors is a part of the holiday, representing the playful love and affection that Radha and Krishna once shared. In fact, Holi is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Love.
6. Get ready to be covered — like, completely covered — in color
On the day after the bonfire comes the main Holi celebration. People get together in white clothing and throw gulal and water at each other. Though this aspect of the festival has been heavily commercialized, it is by far the most well-known part of Holi.
Rangolis, colored patterns made of flowers, colored sand, and rice, are also painted on the floors of houses, businesses, and temples.
7. What does each Holi color mean?
Each color has a different meaning: Red symbolizes love and fertility; yellow is the color of turmeric, a powder that’s native to India and important in both South Asian cuisine and culture; blue represents the Hindu god Krishna, the god of protection, compassion, and love; and green symbolizes new beginnings.
8. There is a feast, of course
After Holi, get ready to eat, as there is a big feast, complete with a variety of traditional dishes, like gujiya, a fried, dumpling-shaped sweet stuffed with dried fruit; dahi vada, a savory snack with lentil fritters and yogurt, topped with a savory chutney and other garnishes; barfi, sweets made from condensed milk and sugar; and lassi, a sweet, refreshing yogurt drink, just to name a few.
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