'Abdu'l-Bahá often asked that question of people he met, especially on his travels through North America. "Be happy!" He would laugh, this man who had been a prisoner from the age of 8 until his hair and beard were snow white. In a gathering on the gentle coast of Maine, he looked out at the crowd gathered to see him. "I want you to be happy ... to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you."
Sometimes, radiant and joyous faces answered, "Yes!" And sometimes, overburdened hearts overflowed, tears spilling unchecked. 'Abdu'l-Bahá continued to smile. Happiness, he explained, can be found on the other side of tears. It's a choice we get to make each moment, or a goal we have the privilege of striving to attain in every situation.
I had the perfect reminder of this over the weekend, traveling to gather more information about Mr. Khánjání's life and history. When I asked about his current living conditions, laughter met the question. "He never complains!" In fact, his family sometimes has to assemble information from other people to get a picture of his well-being. The answer they get from him is a lift of a shoulder and an eyebrow. "It's prison."
That sense of the present is at odds with the anticipation inherent in the current season. In just two short days, as the sun goes down on Thursday night, Ayyám-i-Há kicks off all over the world. Thrown off by accents and stuff? It's easy, I promise: uh-YAH-mee-hah. It means intercalary days, or the days outside of time.
I'm going to skip the whole solar/lunar calendar description (because math). Every messenger from God reveals a new calendar. The one Bahá'u'lláh brought has 19 months that each contain 19 days. The festival of Ayyám-i-Há comprises four extra days after the 18th month and before the 19th month. It's a time for sharing good cheer and hospitality with our families, friends, neighbors, those in need, and pretty much anyone who crosses our path. It's also a bit of a bash before the last month of the year, which is a period of reflection when adults (ages 15 to about 70) in good health fast from sunrise to sunset each day leading up to the new year.
As you can imagine, good cheer and hospitality in many households translate to presents. What I love, though, is the number of people who are way more excited about what they will give than what they will get. Because there are no rituals within the Bahá'í Faith, though, the form of celebration is up to each person.
In Europe and the Americas, we're still wrapping our heads around how Bahá'í holy days and festivals might or might not look like celebrations familiar to our friends and even other parts of our families. Some Bahá'ís modify Advent and Christmas traditions, such as decorating a shrubbery, having a stuffed animal or doll deliver messages leading up to the holiday, or building gingerbread houses of worship (they have nine sides, adding cookie architectural complexity). Others pick up from Hanukkah and open a present each night of the holiday. Some people, like my mother, take inspiration from birthdays and weddings, stringing twinkly lights and hanging bright streamers and balloons. I tend to keep it simple, letting cheerful gift wrap and fresh flowers lend a festive air to the living room. This year's contrast of stark white daisies and hot pink roses is a favorite.
Lots of Bahá'ís host parties for neighbors and friends. It's the perfect time for people who haven't met to put together faces and names. Whole communities host concerts or dinners open to the public, make visits to hospitals or homes for the elderly, and serve meals at shelters or deliver sandwiches to people living on the streets.
For the most part, things don't get too fancy. In fact, one of my favorite Ayyám-i-Há celebrations was held in a small apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. I was in college about 45 minutes away and convinced my housemates from two foreign nations to jump in the car with me and drive to the home of a couple of Yale law students whom I knew in passing. My friends looked dazed when the door opened and they were enveloped in the fragrance of spices and foods, bright light, warmth, languages, chatter, laughter, and hugs. Each person received a gift, a small brown paper sack neatly folded over, filled with nuts, a little chocolate, and an orange. Even now, nearly 20 years later and separated by oceans, my friends remember that night, the people they met, and the way we savored our simple treats in the days that followed.
Perhaps happiness all comes down to the moment. The welcome of an open heart, open eyes, and open arms. The heat and tang of a cup of tea. The bursting sweetness of a cookie. A buttery beam of sunshine. The glow of a tray of oranges. The smile of satisfaction from a garden caretaker. The shriek of delight from a child meeting a new friend. The joy in a gift is the anticipation. The joy in an experience is what lasts.
Perhaps we find our way to the answer just by asking ourselves the question: Are you happy?