I put up our haft seen yesterday. Here is a picture of it:
Haft seen translates as “seven seens”. Seen is the 15th letter of the Arabic alphabet, which is also the writing system used in Persian, and it sounds like an “s”. The haft seen arrangement has many items celebrating spring, but seven of them are special. Their names start with the letter seen, and they have symbolic significance:
sib (apples) for beauty and good health
sabzeh (lentil sprouts) symbolizing rebirth
samanu (wheat pudding) for affluence. Samanu is sweet, although it is made entirely of wheat berries that are soaked and sprouted for days, then cooked all night and pounded into a paste. The sweetness comes entirely from the wheat’s natural sugars.
serkeh (vinegar) for wisdom and patience
senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree) for love. When the oleaster tree is in full bloom, the fragrance of its blossoms is said to make people fall in love.
somaq (sumac berries) symbolizing the color of the sunrise and therefore also the “new day” (Norooz)
sir (garlic) symbolizing medicine
Many of the other items in the haft seen are auspicious (and some also begin with the letter seen):
sekeh (gold coins). Placing them in your haft seen means that your money will multiply over the course of the year. I must put the wrong coins in mine, because that one never seems to work for me.
Koran or poetry: I put a copy of the Iranian poet Hafez’s Divan in the center of my haft seen. It is trilingual: Persian, English and German and represents my three cultures.
sombol (hyacinths) because they are among the first flowers to bloom in the spring. And they smell nice.
Yaz (jasmine) – this isn’t traditional, but jasmine is the first flower to bloom in my garden, so in it goes.
Adjeel – A special mixture of nuts and dried fruit
Pastries – to make the coming months sweet.
Decorated eggs – for fertility (mine are chocolate in colorful wrappers)
The mirror and candlestick are also symbolic. I light the candles at night and the flame reflects off the mirror, creating the illusion of fire and water. This makes me think of the Zoroastrians, who started the tradition.
Usually there are also a few goldfish swimming in a bowl of water. I leave this out because I never know what to do with little tykes after the holiday is over. In Iran, vendors stand on the corner in every bazaar with big tanks and lots of goldfish swimming around. They will scoop the fish out with a net and deposit them into a water-filled plastic bag for you to take home – quickly before the oxygen is gone.
Apart from being pretty, the goldfish serve a practical function. They tell you precisely when the year changes. The fish swim in circles in one direction, but at the moment the new year arrives, they abruptly turn around and head the other way. No matter how long I sit in front of the fishbowl and stare, I’ve never seen this amazing event. It must happen when I blink.
Our haft seen will remain in place until the thirteenth day of Norooz. Then we will take the sabzeh outside and scatter the sprouts away for good luck.