Holi celebrates the Full Moon called the Holi Purnima, which occurs in the lunar month of Phalgun (February-March). Holi thus celebrates the coming of spring, which is enacted in a legend of fire. An evil demon, ruler of heaven, earth and hell, forced everyone to worship him as a god. His little son Prahlad, however, remained faithful to Lord Vishnu. So the King wanted him dead. His wicked sister, the demon Holika (after whom the festival is named), could not be harmed by fire.
Taking up Prahlad, she entered a bonfire. But through Vishnu’s intervention, she was the one who burned and the child remained safe. Bon fires commemorating this tale of devotion overcoming even the most powerful of obstacles are lit on the first day of Holi, the day of the Full Moon. People throw cow dung into the fires and shout obscenities at Holika. Where the spring element is more dominant, the first fruits of the harvest are offered to the cleansing fire. Embers are carried home to light fires in the houses.
Holi is a lighthearted celebration of exuberance and cheer. There are wild processions to drum beats and dances to traditional Holi folk songs. People let go of past grievances an look forward to a new beginning. The young are allowed to get intoxicated, behave rudely and play pranks. Everyone goes visiting, and guests are offered ghujias (sweetmeats made from flour, almonds and raisins) and cool thandais (a milk-based drink), which can be laced with small amounts of “bhang”, or marijuana.
Holi is most known as a festival of colors. On the first day, the eldest male of the family sprinkles colored powder (gulal) and colored water on each family member. The colors, especially red, are made from flowers and signify blossoming. The second day is Dhuleti, when all hell breaks loose. Children, young men and women form separate groups and go out covering everything and everyone with colors. Holi is a celebration typical of Northern India, but it is so much fun that most of India and Hindus all over the world celebrate it.