Holi: The Festival of Colours

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Hindu celebration of Spring, Love, and Forgiveness
  • 2020 Date: March 9th – 10th
  • Celebrated by: Hindus, Indians
  • Linked Holidays: Diwali, Lohri, Easter

Background and Theological Significance

Holi is an ancient festival from the Indian subcontinent that traditionally marks the arrival of Spring and the end of Winter. The celebrations are defined by explosions of colour which represent an outpouring of joy and love which simultaneously drives out demonic forces that seek to isolate us, while also bringing people together in good spirits and even mending broken relationships.

The festival is most commonly tied to the exploits of the deity Vishnu, one of the three most important deities in Hindu theology alongside Brahman and Shiva. Stories that hold particularly strong connections to Holi are Vishnu’s avatar Narasimha, a half human half lion who killed the demon King Hiranyakashipu who was persecuting his own son Prahlada for worshipping Vishnu. 

Another story tells of Vishnu’s avatar Krishna, who was worried that his dark skin would mean that his love Radha would forsake him. To alleviate his concern, his mother told Radha to approach him with paint and colour his face whichever colour he would like. This gives symbolic life to the famous paint fights that are the most striking aspect of Holi celebrations.

These stories are just two of many that are told in connection to this festival which celebrates overcoming fear and darkness with playful colour.

History

Holi is an ancient festival that is tied with the changing of the seasons from the darkness of Winter to Spring, when colour returns to the world. As such it has a rich and layered history that stretches back longer than the historical record.

In the past few hundred years the celebration has spread with the Indian diaspora to Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean and has become an iconic global celebration.

What Happens?

The festivities start the night before Holi with a Holika bonfire. This is done as a community in open shared spaces. The bonfire is often topped with an effigy of Holika, the evil aunt of Prahlada, who tricked him onto a fire but ended up being burnt herself. The fire symbolises the triumph of goodness over evil and when it is lit after midnight the festivities usually start with singing and dancing as a community. 

The next morning people wake up early and gather coloured powder and water. They then spread through the community and throw these paints at everyone they meet. It is supposed to be indiscriminate. But it is also traditional in some places to seek out enemies or people that some grievances are held against so that the bad feelings can be resolved through a playful fight with colours. By midday all the residents of the community should be covered in all the colours of the rainbow, a testament to the return of goodwill and colour to the land and its people.

Following this, people return to their homes to clean up. They then dress nicely and prepare gifts which they take to their friends, relatives, but also their enemies. Holi is the day of the year that is set aside for forgiveness and the celebration of the relationships and connection that we have with each other. For centuries, and perhaps even millenia now, Holi proves that there is no better way of doing this that through play.

Image by Jan Cigánek from Pixabay

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