Author Archives: Sonali Chanchani

Haft Sín: A Part of the Persian New Year

Contextual Data: I had been hanging out with one of my friends and we got into a conversation about our different cultures and religious backgrounds—he’s a Persian who practices the Baha’i faith. And at one point, he mentioned the Persian New Year, which had just occurred the previous month on March 20th. He grew up in the United States and his whole family (including his grandparents and his extended family) lives here, but they still partake in the these New Years’ traditions. I asked him to tell me more about it — about any specific characteristics or rituals — and the following is an exact transcript of what he described.

“The only ritual I can think of in New Years celebration is the arrangement of what’s called the Haft Sín Sín is equivalent to the letter “S” in the English alphabet and Haft means “seven.” So what Iranians do in their homes is they create… um…kind of like a banquet of different items beginning with that letter that all have a symbol. Like síb, which means “apple” in Farsi, is a symbol of health and life. And sekhé, which is like a gold coin, is a symbol of wealth. And…um… I think sekhé—No… Seer, which is garlic, is like a symbol of fertility. Or… There’s—There’s like a lot of these different things. I think that there’s apples, there’s goldfish, there’s painted eggs…Yeah. [Laughs.]”

– End Transcript –

A few other items that can be a part of the Haft Sín, which my informant later mentioned to me, are: sumac, which is a spice; sír, which is vinegar; sangak, which is wheat bread; and then sometimes a bed of wheatgrass, which the family has grown. When I asked him about what he thought the significance of it was, he replied, “It’s just like, if another Persian came into your house around that time, they would like, look at your Haft Sín and be like ‘Oh, that’s nice’— Kind of like the Christmas tree for Christians, in a way.”

My informant mentioned that in Persian culture, Naw Rúz falls on the first day of spring (usually March 21st), which he says relates to the symbolic idea of spring as “the beginning of life.” So in thinking about Naw Rúz as a celebration of this new life, as well as the liminal nature of the New Year (the in-between phase when people pass from one year to the next), it seems as though the Haft Sín is an important way of ushering in luck for the “new life” ahead — good luck related to health, wealth, fertility, and so on. My friend mentioned that the arrangement varies from family to family, and that the arrangement can exceed seven items, which suggests that it can be a more individual reflection of what a family is hoping to be blessed with in the upcoming year. The arrangement therefore also seems like an important way of bringing together the family.

Given that my informant and his family live in the United States, part of the reason for partaking in this tradition could also be as a means of holding on to their Persian culture.

This offers another description of the Haft Sín table, listing additional items, as well as alternative symbolic meanings to the items. This again alludes to the way that the arrangement can vary from family to family, based on the faith of the family and on what they might be looking forward to in the New Year. Social media also presents a great way to see this variation—searching the hashtag “#haftsin” on Instagram or Tumblr pulls up photos from many different users, illustrating the different ways that Iranian families arrange their tables, as well as what items they include in the arrangement.

Persian Ditty/Folk Poem

Contextual Data: I asked my informant if there were any stories or songs that he learned when he was younger and he mentioned this one; he would sing this poem with his grandmother as he got ready for school in the morning. We met over coffee and he recited the poem in Farsi, then wrote it down both in Farsi and in the Romanization of the Farsi script, before reciting the English translation.


In Romanized Script:

Māmānī māmānī māmānī joon.
Chaī rā bezār rú fenjoon
Vakhtī kē chaī rā nooshīdan
Māmānī rā booshīdan
Mīran koodakestán
Shādān o khandán
Shādān o khandán

Translated to English:

Grandmother, grandmother, grandmother dear
Put the tea on the kettle
When I drink my tea,
And kiss my grandmother
I’ll go to school
With joy and laughter
With joy and laughter 

My informant learned this poem from his grandmother, and the two of them would sing it together as he was getting ready for school in the morning. He attached no particular significance to it — it was just a sort of sweet, daily ritual between him and his grandmother. But he has talked about it with his Iranian friends, who have all heard of it and speak of reciting it in similar contexts. He felt that people passed it on partially just because it’s easy to remember because of the rhyme scheme, but also because it is kind of a way to get kids excited about going to school.

But beyond this, it could speak to the possible importance of the grandmother as part of the family household and her role in caring for the children.  In general, though it’s just such a happy ditty — it’s something my informant clearly associates with fond memories and positive relationships, and something that allowed him to always start his day off on a joyful note, which could explain why he plans on passing it on to his own children. 

Ogopogo: Canada’s Loch Ness Monster

Contextual Data: After talking about how birthdays were celebrated in Canada, I asked my friend if there were any other “kooky” Canadian traditions or stories. She mentioned that there was this one story she had heard growing up about the “Canadian Loch Ness Monster.” I asked her to tell me more about it, and the following is an exact transcript of her response.

Informant: “Okay, um. So… My relatives all live in Canada, and ay aunt and uncle—well, a lot of my relatives live in British Colombia—um, my aunt and uncle live in Kelowna, which is like a small city. And it’s around a lake. The city is built around a lake called Lake Okanagan. Um…O-K-A-N-A-G-A-N. And, so it’s like… Obviously there’s lots of First Nations people around the area—they actually own a lot the land in Kewlona. So I think it’s like—I don’t actually know really where the story comes from, but there’s lots of, like, myths about the lake and stuff. Um, and the big one is that there’s sort of like a Loch Ness Monster type creature living in Okanagan called Ogopogo, which is an anagram I guess—like the same spelled backwards. It’s just like a a…Just um… The myth is that there’s like this friendly monster with kind of like a serpent, but really big with lots of humps, and um, there’s a statue of it, like, in the town, and stuff. It’s in like children’s books—like everyone knows about Ogopogo. And um, it’s sort of like the mascot of Kewlona, and so there’s all these, like—throughout the times where people claim to have seen it, and like, kind of like, what’s it called [Snaps]… Bigfoot, where they’ll be like this shadowy picture and it’ll be like, ‘See that’s Bigfoot.’ It’s the same with Ogopogo. They’ll be like, ‘That’s Ogopogo right there.’ And it’s like, ‘Where?’ [Laughs.] Like, it’s not exactly—it’s very unclear. And so a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s just two logs’ or ‘That’s just…It’s obviously not real.’ But, um… It’s still like a really big mascot—All the kids in Kewlona know about it…Oh! Not an anagram. A palindrome. Ogopogo is a palindrome. The same forward as it is backward [Laughs].”

Me: “And it’s supposed to be a friendly monster?”

Informant: “It’s a friendly monster, yeah… So it’s—In all the depictions I’ve seen of it. I had little books growing up with like Ogopogo. Like my aunt will give me like Ogopogo or a work of Ogopogo being a friendly monster and guiding boats in the ocean or stuff like that.”

– End Transcript – 

My friend really wasn’t too sure about why people might feel inclined to share this story or perpetuate this legend.

One thought is that it might have to do with the element of the unknown that exists with lakes and other such bodies of water—people can’t see too far below the surface, and so they may invent stories about what exists below, or they might catch glimpses of creatures that they are unfamiliar with and don’t know how to describe, and so they create stories about what they are. The fact that Ogopogo is a friendly monster could speak to the relationship that people in Okanagan feel to the place and to the land—they don’t perceive it as dangerous or threatening, in spite of the fact that what lies beneath the surface of the lake is unknown; they perhaps perceive that whatever is on the other side of this unknown is something positive.

From the sound of it though, Ogopogo also seems very much to be a part of the tourist culture of Kewlona—especially given this idea that it is the town’s mascot. Part of Ogopogo’s prominence in the town could therefore be the residents of the town taking control of this legendary creature as a point of pride and as a way of asserting their identity and identifying what might make Kewlona and the Lake Okanagan area special.

The legend was used as the basis for a mystery in one of the installments of the Boxcar Children series (#108: The Creature in Ogopogo Lake). Part of story touches upon the tourist culture around the monster, as people travel to “Ogopogo Resort” to catch sight of the it, but it also taps into this idea of the unknown as the monster becomes a part of the mystery. It thus seems to touch upon two key reasons as to why the legend is sustained.

Drinking Game: King’s Cup

Contextual Data: I asked a friend of mine if there was any particular drinking game that she enjoyed playing, and she mentioned this game “Kings” or “King’s Cup.” I’d heard of the game once before, and I asked her if she could explain to me how it was played and why she enjoyed it so much. The following is an exact transcript of her response.  

“Um, okay, so… Kings is like a great game to play with like a whole bunch of people, because, well, you’re drinking, you’re all sitting in a circle, maybe you don’t really know everyone. So first you get a deck of cards, and you—everyone has cups, and of course, various alcohols, so whatever everyone is drinking, um… Maybe different pops or whatever or, like, mixed drinks. So you put one cup in the center of the deck of cards that you lay out in a circle in, like, kind of a fan around the center cup. And… Basically everyone just goes around and picks up a card when it’s their turn. So… I guess like… There’s rules, basically, that correspond with each card. I guess I can go over the rules.

“So when you get an Ace, um… I, I mean all the rules involve drinking. So every time you pick a card, something on that card is going to tell you an instruction on what you have to drink, how you have to drink it, um, who’s going to get stuck drinking, basically. And the point of the King’s cup is that as you go on, people are pouring, like, different things like their drink into that specific cup. And, um… it gets grosser and grosser, and at the end, the person who loses is gonna have to chug that disgusting, like, gross cup. Um, so…

“When you pull the cards—So you get an Ace. And if someone gets an Ace, um…it’s called ‘Waterfall,’ so the person who gets the card can, um, start drinking—whatever time they want—they start to drink whatever drink they have in their cup, and they can stop at any time, and—Oh! Everyone’s drinking at the same time. So everyone, um, in the circle of friends or whoever, starts drinking at the same time that person does, and then they can stop whenever they want, the next person can stop whenever they want, and that means the person next to them gets to stop whenever they want. So, basically, everyone’s getting screwed. Like, everyone’s getting plastered. Um, the second rule—a Two means You, so when it gets to Two, you have to drink. Three means Me, um, so—Oh wait. No. Two means You, so when you pick a Two you can designate someone that has to—so you like point to a person that you…has to take a drink. Three means Me, so when you pick that, um, you yourself have to drink. Four… Drinking games are sexist so Four means Whores, and all the women, um, in the group have to drink. That annoys me [Laughs]. As a side note. Um…Five means Jive. It’s like a really fun one. Um…Every—The person who picks it has to do a dance move, and the next person—in the circle—has to add on to it. And everyone’s probably drunk, so you have to keep building on to those dance moves, and if someone messes up, like the sequence, they have to drink. Um…It’s always fun to watch drunk people try and dance. And…Six means Dicks. More sexism. The men have to drink. Um…Yeah [Laughs]. That’s problematic. Then Seven is Heaven. Um…Everyone—the person who gets the card reaches up and puts both hands up to…touch the sky [Mimes putting both hands straight up in the air]. And the last person to notice and put their hands up has to drink. So if you’re not paying attention or, like, you’re just drunk or like, ‘What’s Seven mean?’ you get screwed and you have to drink. Um…Eight means Mate. So this is where you can pick someone and for the rest of the game when you have to drink—so when you are the last one to do the Seven Heaven thing or something that person has to drink too. And that’s a really good way to… Whatever. Either get back at someone or flirt with someone or whatever. Um, lets see. That was Eight—Eight means Mate. Nine is Rhyme. So…Someone—The person who draws the Nine thinks of a word and then everyone else after them has to, um, think of a rhyme to that word. And if they…The last person to either repeat the—something that someone’s already said or not be able to think of one has to drink. Um, Ten is Catagories. It’s like a similar idea, I guess. Um, so you pick a category, like ‘types of cereal’ or like… I don’t—Anything, really. It…In a party situation people usually pick something like…More vulgar. So ‘types of sexual positions’ or something and just like…Yeah. Interesting ways of getting people talking. And the last person—like the same thing with the rhyme—the last person to either mess up, not be able to think of one, or something else that someone’s already said has to drink. And then Eleven…Oh. No. There’s no Eleven in cards [Laughs]. Jack. Um, people play it differently, I guess. Like, there’s different rules, but when I play it, it just means, like, Jack means Back. I think other people play, like, Jack means, like, ‘Never Have I Ever’ or something. But that’s like a little aggressive to me…I don’t know. Um, Jack to Back is easier. So the person to the…Um, right of where you’re sitting when you pick the Jack has to drink. And… Queen is Question Master. So when the person draws the Queen, um, they kind of, like, don’t tell anyone. They might just say, like, ‘Oh, I got the Queen. I’m Question Master.’ But maybe no one notices and so that person, um, whenever they ask questions from that point—‘till someone else draws a Queen—they’re the Question Master, and if you answer—if someone playing answers the question that they’re asking, um, you have to drink. So, you can really mess with people because you just ask them, like, ‘Hey, is there anymore, like, in that cup or anything?’ If they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah! I can see some—Aww, you made me drink, like [Laughs], fuck you.’ Um [Laughs]. And…The King is like the whole point of the game—the King’s Cup. So when you get a King, you get to pick a rule for the game, like—same thing with the Queen, until someone else gets the King. And, um…The… So you might make a rule, like, ‘No swearing.’ And everyone’s drunk, so that’s pretty hard. [Laughs.] So if you do swear you have to drink. And then—or any kind of rule, basically. There’s like a few common ones, like…Again, like to mess with people, like…Whatever. There’s like…Yeah. Um, and then for the last King, whoever draws the last King, um—we kind of keep track—has to drink the King’s Cup and the game’s over…And they’re clearly messed [Laughs].”

– End Transcript –

When I asked my friend why she thought people played this particular game, she mentioned that it’s somewhat different from other drinking games, like Beer Pong or Flip Cup, because it doesn’t require any sort of “athletic” skill, it’s a game that could be played with large groups of people, and it’s a game that moves fairly quickly. She also mentioned that it’s a good game to get people talking and socializing. She said that she first learned to play it in college, and that it is particularly fun to play with people who have never played before, because when you first learn, it’s difficult to keep track of the rules, and so the “newbies” end up getting drunk very quickly. In that sense, it also seems to be a kind of initiation ritual in the drinking culture that’s often so prominent in the college social setting.

Her answer was fairly thorough and seemed to provide an insightful reason as to way the game is passed on — in particular that it is about getting drunk quickly (which is usually the reason people play these games) and that it does seem like a very good game to play to get people to start speaking and socializing with one another, which is certainly part of its appeal.

Interestingly enough, the game was made into an app for the Android, for those that don’t have a deck of cards handy. Different versions of the app do offer different sets of rules, which underscores that there are many variations to the game. It’s also interesting to note that the app exists under the name “Waterfall Drinking Game” and that an alternative name is “Ring of Fire,” which both emphasize that it is ultimately a game about getting drunk, which again, is why people usually play such games.

Swedish Mythological Creature: Elves

Contextual Data: After talking to me about the Tomten, my friend mentioned that there was a similar tradition of elves in Sweden. They are seen as these mist-like creatures that come out at night over the lakes. The following is an exact transcript of conversation.

Informant: “One that I also think is really cool to talk about is, um…Has to do with elves. And in northern Sweden, when the temperature starts changing in the summer, um, you’ll get these clouds of mist [Mimes a sphere shape with her hands] that show up on like the lake surfaces — so the surfaces of the lakes, and obviously Sweden is one of the places that has, like, a ton of lakes just from the glacial paths and stuff. Um, and so at night obviously the lakes will be completely flat and then you’ll see these like balls of mist and the ball — and it’s weird because it’s not mist just like coating the lake, there are like balls of mist that are separate from each other, and I don’t know if it’s the wind or something but they kind of like twirl around. Um, and so when I was little and I saw them, my dad told me that they were, um…Elves that are dancing on the water and that’s kind of like a Swedish — well I mean at least in the northeastern part of Sweden where my family is from. Um…There’s this concept of the mist as being like the elves that come out of the forest at night and they dance on the water when you’re not watching. Um, and then of course by the morning — when the morning comes, the sun comes up and they disappear. So you can only see them in, like, the middle of the night when the temperature is just right… It’s actually really cool. And if you get too close, too, they kind of dissipate, so you can only see them — you can never actually get that close.”

Me: “Do you think that’s something they tell for the sake of the children? Or is there any other significance to it?”

Informant: “I think — That actually I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that—and one thing that I really love about northern Sweden is that, um, the connection between, like, humans and the land I think is much stronger than it is here in the U.S. or even maybe in more urbanized part of the country. Um, you know, people really—It’s remote. And you live out there, and my — I know my family, um, they built their house. Like, they cut down the logs and built the house, and then they — they built a boat to take them from the mainland to their house [Laughs]. I mean they’re very, like, they live off the land and in a way that a lot of people don’t now. I mean my…my…Like they weave their own blankets and I mean they’re…It’s really intense. Um, and just like I said: there’s this connection that doesn’t exist here… Um, and I think that people see — even adults see more magic in the land than we do now. And I think that’s something that, you know, while it’s for kids… I think people are more willing to accept it because they understand that nature has, like, a magical quality to it. You know…”

– End Transcript – 

My informant seemed to provide a pretty thorough account of why this tradition sticks around in Sweden. In particular, this idea of the elves as dancing on the water really does seem to speak to the perception of nature as having “a magical quality to it.” Beyond this, it also seems to be a way of making sense of an unusual natural phenomenon — this description of the mist as forming little balls or clusters over the lakes rather than just existing as a sort of loose blanket, as one might expect it to.