Welcome to the Festivals of Light Blog

The Children's International Learning Centre is pleased to present pieces about the Festivals of Light, written by volunteers, members and friends of the CILC. Once again, they have also been featured on the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) Blog this year!

New blog posts will be released as per the schedule below so be sure to stay tuned! Scroll down further to see last year's partnership with the RBG.

Celebration/Observance: Date of Celebration/Observance Blog Release Date
Diwali November 4, 2021 (November 2–6) November 4, 2021
Hanukkah November 28–December 6, 2021 November 29, 2021
Christmas December 25, Orthodox Christmas: January 7 January 6, 2022
Kwanzaa December 26–January 1 December 27, 2021
Lunar New Year February 1–15 February 1, 2021
Ramadan/ Eid-ul-fitr April 2–May 2, 2022, Eid-May 2, 2022 April 4, 2022

Ramadan & Eid
April 2 to May 2, 2022 (Eid)

Fareeda Baruwa (she/her), Volunteer at the Children’s International Learning Centre

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, with 1.9 billion Muslims around the globe. Muslims adhere to the 5 pillars of Islam. One of them, Sawm (Fasting) is the essence of Ramadan. The end of Ramadan is Eid-ul-Fitr.

Ramadan: April 2 to May 2, 2022

The time of Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar when the sighting of the moon begins the holy month. During Ramadan, it is encouraged to increase your good deeds. Muslims spend the month fasting from sunrise to sunset, praying into the night, giving charity, and reciting and reflecting on the Quran (Holy Book). Ramadan is the time to build discipline, increase worship and devotion, and cultivate empathy for the less fortunate.

A typical day starts with Suhoor (meal before sunrise), where it is encouraged to eat light and nutritious meals to keep one energized to worship the entire day.

Then Fajr (morning prayer) is observed. In the afternoon, two more prayers, Dhuhr and Asr, are observedAfter sunset, Muslims break their fast with dates, following the teachings of the Holy Prophet who loved dates. Other common fruits eaten include watermelon and oranges. After Maghrib (evening prayer), families gather around the dinner table to eat Iftar (meal after sunset) and fuel up for the nightly prayers.

In my home country, Nigeria, we have a tradition where one Muslim family prepares the Iftar for the community which is shared at a local mosque (place of worship). Although in Canada, we don’t have this same tradition, I would volunteer at my local mosque to help make Iftar for the community. These are cherished traditions of mine for Ramadan because I catch up with my friends and loved ones.

Physical distancing at prayer ground on Eid Day in Canada
Physical distancing at prayer ground on Eid Day in Canada

Night time is believed to be special during the month, as the Quran was revealed during the last 10 nights of Ramadan. Muslims increase their charitable giving on these nights. They also pray Tarawih (a set of prayers) which is led by an Imam, where the Quran is read. After Tarawih and Isha (final prayer), everyone heads back home to sleep and prepare for the next day! The holy month comes to an end (sadly) when the new moon is sighted, then Muslims say goodbye to Ramadan and welcome Eid with open arms.

My prayer rug and Qur’an (English translation) and Qur’an (original Arabic text)

Eid-ul-Fitr: May 2 to May 3, 2022

Muslims all over the world celebrate the joyful occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, to mark the end of Ramadan. Eid means ‘happiness’, and Fitr means ‘breaking the fast’.

My family begins the celebration by looking our very best in new clothes, and decorating our house with lights and balloons. We drive down to the mosque for the special prayer accompanied by a short lecture. After, everyone hugs each other where gifts and Eid money are given to the children. Pictures are taken at the prayer ground, then everyone takes a different path back home to eat their first mid-day meal in a month. Often, people visit relatives and friends. Some mosques will host fun events such as BBQs, or carnivals with games and prizes. Overall, it is a joyous day with no single dull moment!

Muslims hope to implement the good habits they cultivated during the month of Ramadan into their everyday lives in order to improve themselves and the rest of society.

At the prayer ground on Eid Day, Pre-COVID, Nigeria
At the prayer ground on Eid Day, Pre-COVID, Nigeria

Lunar New Year
(February 1st to 15th)

By: Selena Gong (she/her), Volunteer at the Children’s International Learning Centre

The Lunar New Year is a yearly celebration that celebrates the ending of winter and welcomes spring. Usually, it occurs sometime in January or February, depending on the Lunar Calendar. The Lunar New Year is celebrated by many different Asian cultures, such as Seollal in Korea, Tết Nguyên Đán in Vietnam and Spring Festival or Chinese New Year in China.

There are 12 Chinese zodiac animals that repeat in a cycle. Each year is represented by one of the animals. People born in the year will have traits of the zodiac animals. The upcoming year will be the Year of the Tiger; many people believe those born in the year of the tiger are thought to be competitive, self-confident, and brave.

The most memorable Lunar New Year moment I have from growing up in China is the fireworks lighting up the entire sky. Fireworks are important because they scare away the evil spirits and celebrate the new year. Similar to Christmas in western countries, everyone tries to go home and take time with their family during this time. A week or two will usually be taken off from work, and people will travel from all over the country to be with their family.

In my family, the entire extended family will gather at one of the grandparents’ houses, cook a large feast together, set up decorations, play card games or mahjong (tile-based game), or watch a yearly new year’s performance on the television called “Spring Festival Gala”. Sometimes, if people are too tired to cook for the entire family, you can rent out a large room in a restaurant. They will have a set course for a New Year’s feast. The holidays are usually a very busy time for restaurants.

My family during Lunar New Year celebrations
My family during Lunar New Year celebrations
My grand-parents, aunt and mom.
My grand-parents, aunt and mom.

For the kids, everyone receives a red pocket filled with money, usually spending money so they can buy a gift for themselves. Nowadays, with the invention of e-wallets and e-payments, many choose to send money via an e-transfer instead of in the traditional red packet. Interestingly, these e-transfers are always called ‘red packets’, even if they are not sent during the new years time. I also remember my grandma talking about how it is traditional to give tangerine trees during the new year, as the little oranges are one of the only trees that produce fruit during the winter. Bearing fruit during the harsh winter months is a sign of resiliency and brings fortune in the new year.

In the few days following the New Year’s Eve, we visit extended family and friends, as well as go to a monastery or temple to pray for good luck in the upcoming year. We burn incense and place it in a big cauldron in the centre of the temple and think about our wishes for the next year.

Compared to China, the celebrations in Canada are not as extensive. We do not usually take a week or two off during the Lunar New Year celebrations. However, there are many celebratory activities during this time, such as watching lion dances, visiting friends, and also going to a temple. It is a time spent with family, about the joy of being together and celebrating the passing of another year.

Lunar New Year Display (Year of the Pig), 2018–2019 Festivals of Light Programme
Lunar New Year Display (Year of the Pig), 2018–2019 Festivals of Light Programme

(December 26th to January 1st)

Volunteers at the Children’s International Learning Centre

Kwanzaa is a cultural festival (not a religious one) that is celebrated by many African-Americans regardless of religious background. It is a relatively young holiday as it started in 1966 in California, USA by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African–American history teacher. The celebration has now spread to many countries. His goal was to bring together African-Americans by reminding them of their shared African heritage. He also wanted people to recognize the rich traditions, customs and history that have become forgotten or lost. It is celebrated during the holiday season so that people can rejoice in the spirit of the festive season.

Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili term, Kwanza which means “first”. Thus, Kwanzaa also celebrates the “first fruits” at harvest time.  Usually, the word has 6 letters but when used for the celebration, an extra ‘a’ is added to the end to represent the 7 days of Kwanzaa starting from December 26 until January 1. As well, it represents the 7 principles which are values that help build and reinforce community among the African-American culture. One principle is recognized for each day of Kwanzaa.

  • Day 1: Umoja (unity): Loving one another and maintaining unity in family and community.
  • Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination): Trying your best, learning how to become your best self, standing up for yourself, defining yourself, and speaking for yourself
  • Day 3: Ujima (working together and responsibility): Building a community and working together to accomplish goals and solve problems.
  • Day 4: Ujamaa (cooperative economics): Supporting your own stores so the community can profit together. Volunteering or giving back to charities.
  • Day 5: Nia (purpose): Finding your own place in the community and making a positive influence. Remembering where you come from.
  • Day 6: Kuumba (creativity): Doing what you know to make something creative and help leave our communities more beautiful than when we inherited it.
  • Day 7: Imani (faith): Believing in people and faith.

To celebrate Kwanzaa, people decorate homes in the 3 traditional colours of Kwanzaa: black represents people; red represents all the struggles of African-Americans; green represents hope for the future and the land.

Seven is a popular number for Kwanzaa as there are also seven symbols associated with the celebration.

  • i) kinara (a candle holder) which represents the African ancestors
  • ii) mishumaa saba (seven candles) which symbolize the 7 principles (values) people are urged to live by
  • iii) kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) which is used for commemorating and giving thanks to African ancestors
  • iv) muhindi (corn) which represents the children who are the future
  • v) mazao (crops) which are symbolic of African harvest celebrations
  • vi) mkeka (the mat) represents tradition and history which is the foundation upon which people build
  • vii) zawadi (the gifts) symbolizes the love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children

The celebration is not complete without a festive meal. The meal has a variety of foods of the family’s choice. Tables are usually filled with fruits and vegetables to symbolize the harvest. Some foods which represent the African harvests are okra, yams, squash, sweet potatoes, and bananas. It is important to note that the food is shared as Kwanzaa is about celebrating community.

CILC Kwanzaa display 2017–2018
CILC Kwanzaa display 2017–2018
CILC Kwanzaa display 2018-2019
CILC Kwanzaa display 2018-2019
CILC Kwanzaa display 2019–2020
CILC Kwanzaa display 2019–2020

(December 25th)

Gracia Abboud (she/her), Volunteer at the Children’s International Learning Centre

Christmas has become more of a cultural celebration rather than a religious one where many people do not know the origin of the celebration. For Christians, of all denominations, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The birth of Jesus is celebrated because Jesus is believed to be God in the human form, who came to teach people of the true meaning of eternal love. In North America, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 or on January 6 for the Orthodox Christmas.

Christmas from the Lebanese Maronite Catholic perspective

Growing up in a multi religious country such as Lebanon, allowed me to observe many different religious celebrations. As someone with a Maronite Catholic background, I celebrate Christmas only, on December 25.

At the beginning of December, Christian households set up a crèche, “Maghara” in Arabic. This crèche is a nativity set consisting of small figurines of the baby Jesus, his mother Mary, with her husband Joseph, and other relevant characters meant to re-enact the setting in Bethlehem where the Holy family was when Mary gave birth to Jesus. The crèche is an important symbol as it is considered to bless the home and family and is the place where the more religious hold the rosary prayer.

During the Christmas season, if you drive anywhere in Lebanon, you will see lights and illuminations set up around the houses, schools, and offices…Throughout the years, more western-style decorations have been introduced in the markets. In Jbeil or Byblos, a large, 95-foot-high tree is set up every year with contemporary designs and is regarded by the Lebanese community to be the nicest tree in the country.

Every year on the evening of the 24th of December, my immediate family, aunts and uncles and their kids gather at my grandparents’ house. Gift exchange happens usually on this night as well. Someone volunteers to dress up as Santa Clause, known as Baba Noel (another wonder of mixing French and Arabic), to distribute the gifts. Baba Noel’s persona is also used for social causes, where many volunteers dress up and go to homeless shelters or orphanages to distribute food, clothes, and other gifts.

Right at midnight, all churches ring their bell and turn on all the lights inside and outside the churches. Then there is a mass which mostly youth attend.

The Lebanese table displays an eclectic mix of dishes from Riz Aa Lahme, (which translates to rice and beef/lamb), hummus, tabbouli and other traditional Middle Eastern savoury pastries. The glory of the Christmas feast lies in the desserts: Buche de Noel and Meghli. Buche de Noel, a forever stamp of the French Mandate, is a chocolate biscuit roll made to look like a branch of wood. Whereas Meghli, is a more traditional Arabic dessert made to welcome any newborn (at any time of the year) and welcomes the baby Jesus into our homes.  It is a rice pudding seasoned with anise, caraway and cinnamon and topped with raisins and pistachios.

As we say in Arabic, “Eid Milad Majid” (Glorious birth) is used to greet people. You reply by saying “Kol Sene Wa Inta Bi Kheir” (may each year find you in good health and peace). Or simply, “Merry Christmas” will do the job just fine.

Studying in Canada, without family around, makes me appreciate the little time I get with my family abroad during Christmas break. I look forward to it each year!

This is Rez aa Djej (rice with chicken) topped with roasted nuts and decorated with roasted chestnuts around the rim. My family makes this dish often but only decorates it this way for special occasions.

This is Rez aa Djej (rice with chicken) topped with roasted nuts and decorated with roasted chestnuts around the rim. My family makes this dish often but only decorates it this way for special occasions.

This photo shows the mix of Middle Eastern and Western decorations for Christmas. This crèche is set up outside in the park next to a Christmas tree.
This photo shows the mix of Middle Eastern and Western decorations for Christmas. This crèche is set up outside in the park next to a Christmas tree.
This smaller house crèche was set up at my grandma’s house in Jbeil, Lebanon.
This smaller house crèche was set up at my grandma’s house in Jbeil, Lebanon.

(November 28th – December 6th)

Ethan Sniderman (he/him), Grade 10 student, Friend of the Children’s International Learning Centre

For my family and me, Hanukkah is a time to appreciate friends and family, who all get together to celebrate this joyous festival. At a time of the year when we are experiencing more darkness in nature with each passing day, it is satisfying to light candles and celebrate this Festival of Lights. It’s not just a one day holiday, either. Hanukkah lasts for eight days and each night we add a candle until our Hanukkah menorahs/hanukkiah (candle holder) are fully lit on the final culminating night. In ancient times, the flames were lit with a wick in pure olive oil and there is a miracle associated with this holiday. Let’s take a look at that.

Hanukkiah and Torah, 2019–2020 Hanukkah Display, Festivals of Light Programme
Hanukkiah and Torah, 2019–2020 Hanukkah Display, Festivals of Light Programme

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the historic victory of the Maccabees (small Jewish army) over the larger Syrian army. Embedded in that story is the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem being reclaimed after it was ransacked by King Antiochus’s army. The Jewish Maccabees cleaned up the mess in the Temple and restored it to order. However, there was only one vial of pure olive oil to light the seven-branched menorah. They thought this one vial would only last for one day and it would take eight days to make more oil. With faith, the Jews lit the menorah anyway and miraculously, that one vial lasted for the full eight days! From then on, the menorah could always remain lit.

The miracle of the oil means that the foods we eat on Hanukkah are delicious fried foods.  Grated potatoes and onions are fried into crisp and golden pancakes called latkes and served with apple sauce or sour cream, depending on your preference.  In Israel and around the world, jelly-filled fried donuts called ‘souvganiot’ are served to the delight of many. These tasty treats remind me of what Hanukkah is about- the miracle of the oil. It also makes me curious about the plants we have that provide us with oil for cooking. Here in Canada, we don’t plant olive trees, but we do have sunflower, canola, rapeseed (from the mustard family) and corn plants. These plants all produce oils which we use for cooking. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to make latkes and souvganiot for Hanukkah.

Decorating your home for  Hanukkah is something that is fun and uplifting. Traditionally, the colours of the Jewish holidays are white/silver, blue and yellow/gold. Flowers are always a lovely decoration and you may be able to find some in the Hanukkah colour theme. Some examples of these flowers are cornflowers, Hoary alyssum, Coreopsis and marigold.

Hanukkah Display, 2017–2018 Festivals of Light Programme
Hanukkah Display, 2017–2018 Festivals of Light Programme
Hanukkah Display, 2019–2020 Festivals of Light Programme
Hanukkah Display, 2019–2020 Festivals of Light Programme

Sometimes, because of giving and receiving presents, it is hard to remember why we have this holiday. But, by eating latkes and playing the dreidel (spinning top) game, we have reminders of the miracle. The dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side.  The letters spell out Nesh Gadol Hayah Shem, which means A Great Miracle Happened There (Jerusalem) so we remember the miracle.  Dreidels in Israel say Nesh Gadol Hayah Po – A Great Miracle Happened Here.

We have this holiday because people like the Maccabees were able to stand up and fight for their beliefs. In dark times, we celebrate light and hope which Hanukkah teaches.


(Hindu faith: November 4, 2021 — November 2–6 for 5-day celebration)
(Sikh faith: November 4, 2021)

Diwali, celebrated by people of Hindu, Sikh, and Jain faiths worldwide, is a festival that commemorates the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. The name comes from the term “dipavali” which means “row of lights”. Based on the lunisolar calendar, the five-day period falls in late October to November with the third day being the peak of celebrations. Traditionally, diyas/deepas (decorated clay lamps) are lit throughout homes and streets at night.

In Hinduism, Diwali is celebrated to honour King Rama’s return to his kingdom after victory in a battle, and to pray to Goddess Lakshmi for good fortune and prosperity. In Sikhism, Diwali is celebrated to mark the release of the 6th guru, Guru Hargobind and 52 princes who were wrongfully imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir. In Jainism, Diwali marks the anniversary of Lord Mahavir’s attainment of moksha or eternal liberation.

Both religions of Hinduism and Sikhism celebrate Diwali using many common elements including: lights, food, prayer and traditional clothing. Many families place diyas (decorated clay lamps which are traditionally fueled by mustard oil) along the ledges of their home and/or use electrical twinnkle lights. While celebrating Diwali, many unique sweets and snacks are made or bought at local shops. These sweets are often made with various fruits, extracts, seeds and more. Popular ingredients include coconut, rosewater, nuts, and dates to name a few. The traditional outfits worn on Diwali may include: sari (long piece of cloth draped around the body) or shalwar kameez (tunic and flowy pants) for women and kurta (shirt) and dhoti (long loincloth) for men.

Celebrating Diwali from a Hindu Perspective

Bhaheswary Thirukumar (she/her), Friend of the Children’s International Learning Centre

The celebration of Diwali has always been a special one for me, especially during my childhood in Sri Lanka. On the morning of Diwali, I would wake up to the sound of temple bells ringing by my home and start getting ready for the day. My siblings and I would wear new dresses gifted to us by our parents and make our way to the temple for worship. Throughout the day, we would prepare traditional foods and sweets that are particularly made during festive occasions. As the sun starts to set, we would decorate our pooja (or puja– prayer) room with colourful flowers and numerous deepas or diyas (clay lamps). Our collection of deepas for Diwali was always unique, placed in diverse patterns inside and outside our home. We would continue with a pooja for Goddess Lakshmi and then, serve homemade food and sweets to guests visiting our home. This beautiful day would end with several families on the street coming together to play with sparklers and fireworks that glow in the dark sky. Moving to Canada, some elements of our celebration have changed. However, the essence and delight of Diwali remain alike.

Diya from Thirukumar Family
Diya from Thirukumar Family
Used during pooja by Thirukumar Family
Used during pooja by Thirukumar Family

Celebrating Diwali from a Sikh Perspective

Kirpa Sihra(she/her), grade 6 student, Brampton, Friend of the Children’s International Learning Centre

My Diwali celebrations start off by going to school where we celebrate by changing into our cultural clothes. Then, we perform traditional dances, usually Bhangra (a type of popular music combining Punjabi folk traditions with Western pop music) and Giddha (popular folk dance of women in Punjab region of India and Pakistan).  This gives us a chance to celebrate as a community and learn about each others cultures.

After that, we go home and I help my dad put up lights on my house to symbolize the day. Then we go to the Gurdwara (place of assembly and worship for Sikhs) to listen to religious music and see our family there. My family is also Radha Soami (belief that living gurus are necessary for a guided spiritual life) so after the Gurdwara we go to Satsang (sacred gathering). At Satsang, we make Diwali crafts like diyas and rangoli with paper, colours, and various other materials. Then we go home and we paint real diyas to light and place them at the front of our house. Then we take lots of pictures and eat sweets to end this special day of celebrations.

Batik and sitar in Diwali 2019 display at the CILC
Batik and sitar in Diwali 2019 display at the CILC
Diyas at night in Southern Ontario from Kirpa’s relatives.
Diyas at night in Southern Ontario from Kirpa’s relatives.
FOL title on a green background above a menorah

CILC & RBG at Home

The Children's International Learning Centre is delighted to be featured on the Royal Botanical Gardens Blog!  We will have an 8-part series planned for RBG at Home about different festivals around the world. We will add updates to this page every time we upload something new.  To read our current posts, click on the pictures below!

Light weaves a common thread to unite people from north to south, east to west in the celebration of many festivals. Journey with us as we learn of celebrations and observances through the words of friends and volunteers of the CILC via the RBG at Home blog.