A primer on Lohri

Dear Tara,

Here’s wishing you a very happy first Lohri. Out of all the several million Indian festivals, I will always wish you on Lohri and there are a few reasons for that. In this post, I will tell you some things about Lohri and its origins, its relevance and significance in our lives.

Lohri marks the beginning of the year for farmers in Punjab. “Punjab – where?”, you might ask. Ok so Punjab is a state in India. Just like California is a state in the US. Your Mom, aka me, hails from a Punjabi family which means that my parents have roots in Punjab. And Lohri is a festival widely celebrated by Punjabis. Now I have never lived there nor do my parents live there any more, but that’s how things are in India.. people from Punjab are called Punjabis, people from Madras are called Madrasis.

I know it sounds silly. But that’s how it is. [To give you an analogy, think about Californians and New Yorkers, even though people in Florida are not called Floridans, and Carolinans is not really a word. There are subtle things that tell apart the two types. All this was more prominent back in the day. The day even before your parents came in this world. In today’s world of converging cultures, these associations don’t have much relevance.]

But for whatever it is worth, Punjab is a state in India that used to have a rich soil and hard working farmers. (None of that is true any more and you should fact check it by the time you get around to reading this. Unfortunately currently Punjab is infamous for its drug abuse problem.) And so, back in the day when Met departments were not that common and we did not fret over weather conditions night and day, the farmers observed the winter solstice as a sign of receding winters, which in turn also meant that it was time to begin harvesting sugar cane, one of their more prominent crops. (Yup back in the day all sugar came from sugar cane and no one had even heard of high fructose corn syrup.)

Anyways, so Lohri basically celebrates the passing of winter solstice, longer days and shorter nights and beginning of the harvesting season. There are some more contemporary significances of Lohri too that I have listed below-

  • People in Delhi like to say that winter begins on Christmas and ends by Lohri. (They wish)
  • Most of the schools in Delhi wait for Lohri to reopen after the winter break since the temperatures tend to be more tolerable for little kids
  • Lohri is a great way to kick out the cold with some nice bonfire, gur gajjak (gur = sugar in its raw form and gajjak is like the Kind Granola Bars that Mom loves and ate a lot during her pregnancy and gur revri = sesame seeds stuck together with gur). If your Nanu was still around he would given you an even better description of these things since he loved them so much 🙂
  • Lohri is the first festival in the Gregorian calendar, also marks the beginning of Uttarayanam
  • Similar to Lohri, in different parts of the country people celebrate  Makar Sankarant, Pongal and Bihu around the same time..(Lohri is on 13th and these festivals are on 14th).

Now lets talk about why Mom wants you to know about Lohri…

Because Lohri has been a favorite of Mom’s since childhood. She loves bonfires. Although she does not get to enjoy them as much anymore, she has fond memories of Lohri in Saharanpur, a small town where she grew up. We used to eat popcorn, revri, sing folk songs that ended with “ho” and offer some popcorn to the loh (the fire). As much as I love water, I also love watching fires (controlled ones). There is something very commanding about how fire takes shape. I remember this one bonfire in Puerto Vallarta that I loved watching and of course the Ritz at Half Moon Bay has bonfires in the evening that attracts a lot of kids (Do you smell marshmallows?)
My most vivid memories of huge Lohri fires are from Saharanpur. Mostly the wealthy households with sons arranged for a big party and the whole neighborhood was invited. I never understood the connection between sons and Lohri back then. But I guess back in the day the legend would have been that sons would grow up to till the soil and hence become more wealthy farmers.. and thus the connection between the two. Who knows! 
Some old women would sing folk songs that I’d not understand a single word of, except for the”ho”in the end when we were instructed to take whatever revri fulliyan was in our hands and toss it into the fire…
 And then there was this song that ended with “Dulha Bhatti wala ho” that always confused the heck out of me. I never understood why women would say something like “may the groom be a kiln owner” (Dulha = Groom and bhatti = kiln).. I mean who wanted to marry a kiln owner? Perhaps women found bricks romantic back then 😛 I recently figured that Mr Bhatti who features in many Punjabi folk songs was a Robin Hood of sorts back in the Mughal era and hence everyone wanted to marry their daughters off to someone like him. (Thank God this mystery is finally solved.)
Alright.. so tonight we will celebrate your first Lohri with some sooji ka halwa and popcorn and on the weekend we will have your Chachus, Chachis, Mausa and Masis and may be some cousins too come and celebrate it with you. As always in US all Indian festivals are celebrated on the weekend. Except for Diwali when I take a leave and so shall you when you are old enough :))

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