JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

I Have No Haft-Sin

No, the correct response to that title is not gesundheit. Bear with me and I'll explain. Sunset on Sunday evening marked the end of the 19-day fast and the coming of Naw-Ruz. In Persian, that means "new day," but it's actually the start of a new year. Lots of Baha'is and friends from around my area, just like our counterparts all over the world, got together to celebrate, break the fast together, and enjoy good company.

I'm always a little amused by Naw-Ruz. The celebration dates back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Over a couple thousand years, in Iran, it's become largely a secular, cultural event. Then, a little shy of two centuries ago, Baha'u'llah reinvested the holiday with spiritual significance. In fact, the Baha'i calendar used worldwide marks the new year according to the spring equinox in Tehran. (This makes perfect sense to those of us in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, it means that the new year starts at the beginning of fall.)

It's no wonder that folks get discombobulated. I've been especially aware of that this year. Given the social climate in the United States, many people are showing a renewed interest in learning about different countries and cultures, with Iran at or near the top of the list. For the last week or two, my social feeds have been inundated with articles and videos describing the Persian cultural holiday and its Zoroastrian roots, from the fire-jumping a few days in advance to cleanse away the old year, to the traditional herb-laden foods, to the visiting of relatives and friends.

And then there is the haft-sin, a charming, but ultra-specific, cultural tradition. If you speak Persian, then it all makes sense: a tabletop display of seven items, all beginning with the Persian letter sin, that represent characteristics and wishes associated with the new year. Sprouts growing in a dish for rebirth. Wheat germ pudding for fertility. Dried olives for love or coins for wealth. Garlic for health. Apple for beauty. Sumac for sunrise or hyacinth for spring. Vinegar for patience. Thank you, Wikipedia and NPR.

But that's not all. Oh no. Depending on your preferences, you might add to the display. A holy book of your choice. A book of Persian poetry. Goldfish (for life; just keep swimming). A mirror (for creation). Fire or a lamp. Candles or photos of loved ones or ancestors to remember. Cypress or pine. Painted eggs. Pomegranate. Wheat (in or out of bread). Water (possibly housing the goldfish). Sweets (could be nuts, could be candy, could be double-chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles ... I'm just saying ...).

Martha Stewart and her ilk have nothing on Persians constructing a haft-sin. Multi-level. Rustic. Refined. Colorful. Muted. Minimalist. Extravagant. These are annual works of art, days or weeks in the planning.

As far as the Baha'i celebration of Naw-Ruz goes, the spiritual one that we all celebrate, all over the world? None of the above applies. By design, the Baha'i Faith is free of rituals and ingrained traditions. The closest things we have to "rituals," in my opinion, are a marriage vow, a prayer for the dead, postures associated with daily obligatory prayers, and two attitudes of respect at the shrines in the Holy Land. All of those can easily be practiced, regardless of culture. I can hear you now: Really? Yes, really. But my Persian friends who are Baha'is... Did you hear what you just said?

Of course Baha'is who are Persian often bring their cultural traditions to Naw-Ruz celebrations. I eagerly waited for a dear friend to post photos of her haft-sin this year, since she always designs something inventive, beautiful, and multidimensional. Like most of my friends who create their own displays, there is often a twist that reflects her Baha'i identity as much as her Persian roots. The seven central items are the same. But the holy book might be the Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Hidden Words, or a simple prayer book. The book of poetry is as likely to be by Tahirih, or by Mahvash Sabet, as it is by Hafez. The photos might be of Abdu'l-Baha or Mirza Mihdi. 

Baha'is who are not Persian? Not so much with the Naw-Ruz revels. Instead, other cultural traditions turn up at different times of the year. Making and frosting cookies or gingerbread structures at Ayyam-i-Ha. Or, as my mother does, leaving up white twinkly lights to enjoy during the early mornings of the Fast. People celebrate in ways that are true both to their faith and their culture or personal preferences.

So. I have no haft-sin. But I do wish you and yours a very happy Naw-Ruz! May all good things come your way in the new year!