The Bidens hosted the largest Diwali celebration ever held in the White House on Monday, with 200 guests in attendance as the president lit a diya, a ceremonial lamp, and addressed the holiday’s significance.
“The ongoing story of America, a story that is firmly stamped in the Indian American and South Asian American experience, that’s why we’re here today,” President Joe Biden said in a speech.
The holiday, celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs around the world, is meant to symbolize the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.
Before he addressed the room full of South Asians, Biden invited two young children to join him onstage.
“That’s my impression of light,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Biden until later in the speech, it would turn out that they were the children of Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of the few Indian Americans in the House.
The president was joined at the ceremony by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who was greeted with loud cheers as she took the stage to talk about her own relationship with Diwali.
“I have such fond memories of celebrating Diwali as a child,” Harris said. “Like many of you, we would go to India about every other year, avoiding monsoon season, and we would go for Diwali. … My mother would give us lit sparklers, and we would go into the streets to celebrate this very important occasion.”
She said the holiday represents hope to her. “Diwali reminds us to see the light in our world, in each other and in ourselves.”
Biden reminisced about the Diwali event he hosted as vice president in 2016, saying it was a light in the darkness cast by former President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“Immigrant families were vilified and shamed as a prelude to what was to come,” he said. “Yet that Diwali night, we gathered together to cast the light of hope and belonging and purpose.”
He ended by addressing the racism and xenophobia leveled against Asians over the last few years, saying Diwali gives people the opportunity to work against such forces.
“I used to think we can defeat hate, coming out of the civil rights movement,” he said. “But it only hides. It hides under rocks until it’s given oxygen and it comes out, prejudiced people speaking. … Diwali is a reminder that each of us has the power to dispel darkness and bring light to the world.”