Hosting can be a lot, especially when part of the game is having the soirée you put together look effortless. In this series, veteran party-throwers tell us how they pull off their highly specific, flawlessly executed gatherings. This installment comes from Avani Modi Sarkar, co-founder of Modi Toys, who shares how she hosts a Diwali celebration for family and friends — lots of kids included. Otherwise known as the festival of lights, Diwali, which lasts five days beginning October 24 this year, is observed by Indians of many faiths and those across the Hindu diaspora. Accordingly, Sarkar’s get-together begins with lots of candles, and all her guests dress up to eat and drink from afternoon to evening. But the main event is the activities she plans for the young ones that keep them occupied and — imperative for Sarkar — teach them about their culture.
Sarkar grew up celebrating Diwali in Gujarat, India, where she lived until she was 8 years old — when her family moved to the U.S. They continued to observe the holiday in their new home: Her mom would cook elaborate dishes and Indian sweets, and they would pray and perform religious ceremonies, but it was always “small and intimate,” Sarkar says.
Today, Sarkar is actively making her own Diwali traditions to pass on to her three young children. “The reason I have this motivation now is because my kids weren’t born and raised in India like I was,” she says. “That connection is inherent for me but not for them. Now that the kids are starting to understand and ask questions about their culture, I want to make sure I have answers to give them.”
So while the adult guests at her Diwali party — extended family and other parents in her community — spend the afternoon and evening eating and drinking, the kids make traditional decorations to learn about the holiday’s core message of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. “I want them to come to expect it,” she says, “and love it enough that one day they want to pass it along too.”
Two days before: Order the food
A couple of days before, I place an order for the food to be picked up the day of (I don’t enjoy cooking like my mom did). I plan for a late lunch — appetizers at 3 p.m., and main dishes served around 6:30 p.m. This year, we ordered from Royal Albert’s Palace in Fords, New Jersey — bhel puri, samosas, and chapli kebabs for appetizers, and puri, chicken tikka masala, chicken curry, chole, aloo gobi, and biryani for dinner with raita and papad on the side.
A day before: Set up the house
Diwali can be like Christmas, where you start setting things up ahead of the holiday, so this year, since I hosted early, I did it the day before. I make sure that our main entrance is this aha moment. When people enter and see the space, they should feel very welcome. I set up an area in the foyer with our Ganesh idol, whom you’ll notice in many Indian homes near the entrance, because he’s considered to be the god who is the remover of obstacles and the one that Hindus pray to first for any ceremony — whether a housewarming, baby shower, or wedding.
Then I create a rangoli — an intricate, colorful design — on the floor. Traditionally, rangolis are made with colored powder, but because I have a 1-year-old, that doesn’t make sense. So instead, I use this sheer fabric and lay it around in a variety of colors. The reason why people make rangolis is because, for Diwali, we pray to Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, so it’s very fitting that you’d want to kick off your year with her blessing. But it’s believed — and whether this is a myth that parents made up long ago, I have no idea — that just like how we have spring cleaning, we’re supposed to clean our home right before Diwali, so that we’re making the home really welcoming for Lakshmi. She will not enter your home if it’s filled with filth, dirt, chaos and stuff, and the rangolis are meant to signify a welcoming vibe.
I put up drapes around the house and try to make them look really nice — like how you see them at Indian weddings. That’s my inspiration. I put up pom-poms and garlands around the staircase railing. The Diwali garlands that you see are typically made of (or meant to depict) marigolds and can come in orange or yellow. Marigold flowers represent the sun, symbolizing brightness and positive energy. It is said that a person surrounded by this mustard color feels optimistic, as the brain actually releases more serotonin. To hang them, Command hooks are really your friend here.
I set the table with more fabric. In the corner, I place this tiered stand, and every other level I decorate with a garland and LED candles. Candles are important, because Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, which literally translates to “row of lights.” It ties back to the story of Rama, a Hindu deity, who was guided home by candles on a pitch-black night after 14 years in exile.
Finally, for an activity for the kids for the next day, I bake my own diyas (or candle holders). I make them out of the same dough you would use to make rotis with flour, water, and salt, but instead of rolling them flat, I mold them into a small bowl shape. I bake them at 185 degrees for about an hour to harden.
Day of the party
10 a.m.: Buy fresh flowers
The morning of the party, I run out to buy fresh flowers. These will be for the kids, who will use the petals to decorate their own cut-out rangoli during the party. I pull them off when I get home and separate the different colors into bowls or into one bin. You can use colored powder or rice, but those are a much bigger pain to clean up. I grab some mithai, which are Indian sweets — malai peda, gulab jamun, kalakand, kaju katli, jalebi — from this place called Mithaas. They’re a must at any Diwali party. They’re technically dessert, but I set them out, and everyone picks at them throughout the day.
1:30 p.m.: Get dressed
Getting dressed up is one way you can really embrace your culture. The kids see me all the time in sweats and T-shirts, so when I actually make the effort to dress up, they’re like, Okay, today’s a special day. And honestly, Indian clothing is just so much more fun to wear. It’s very flowy, and you feel really beautiful in it. I tell my friends to wear Indian clothes too. It adds to the atmosphere of whole thing.
2:30 p.m.: Food arrives
My brother goes to pick up the food, since the restaurant is a bit of a drive for us. Everything gets set out on the kitchen island, buffet-style. Appetizers are first, then before it’s time for dinner, I’ll reheat and plate the main dishes. I set out wine and beer (my husband loves this one) when it’s my family, since most of them aren’t drinkers, and make a signature cocktail if it’s my friends, since most of them are.
I turn on the music. There’s music playing the entire time. We have speakers in all the rooms downstairs, so no matter which room you go into, you hear it. My kids now know what Bollywood music is, and they know if they want to get Mommy in a good mood to put on some Bollywood.
3 p.m.: Guests arrive
Everyone spends the first hour or so grazing on appetizers and mithai. The kids run around and play. At some point, I get them started with the first activity: painting the homemade diyas. They each pick one, then I set them up with acrylic paint and paintbrushes to decorate. It’s a great multiage activity — just as much for the 2-year-old as for the nearly 9-year-olds — and keeps them all occupied for a long time. When they’re done, I pat down the diyas with excess paint and let them dry a bit. Then I call them back to put on rhinestone stickers. Even my 1-year-old son is standing there, playing with the rhinestone stickers. Everybody takes theirs home, of course.
4:30 p.m.: Rangoli crafts
After the kids have some more free time, during which they play on their own, I set up another project: a station for the kids to decorate their own rangoli with the flower petals I pulled earlier. The rangoli is basically a foam mat with intricate designs cut into it about an inch or so deep, so it has space for the kids to fill each one in. It’s something for them to do, and they get to see the finished product.
As dinnertime nears, I preheat the oven to a low temperature to warm up the food.
6 p.m.: Time to eat
Once all the food is set up on the island, the adults make plates. Ideally, we sit in the dining room and I put the kids at a separate table in the kitchen with someone to watch them. But realistically, it’s hard for all the parents to sit down at once, so we sort of eat in shifts — that’s the nature of things when you have kids this young, but it lends to the casual atmosphere.
8 p.m.: Set off sparklers
Once dinner winds down, it’s time to head home. Everyone gets on their shoes and coats, ready to leave, and we head outside to the front yard to set off some sparklers. Typically, Diwali falls on a new-moon night, so it’s quite dark out. Anything you can do to add light and brightness is what’s asked of you for this celebration.
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