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Summer in Armenia

Feast days drenched in tradition are important summer happenings for Armenia’s Christians.

The rites and liturgies of the Armenian Apostolic Church always commemorate important events in the life of Christ and the church. Certain popular observances and customs in Armenia recall, however, the religious and national traditions of its pre-Christian past – an interesting point since Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – Vardavar in Armenian – is one of the church’s most important feasts. Celebrated on 11 July, the feast is marked by a popular custom: On that day people pour cold water on each other.

Last July, in the Ararat region, some 30 miles from the capital of Yerevan, four young Armenians – Karine, Armen, Lilit and Andranik – pulled themselves out of bed earlier than usual, hurried through breakfast and raced to fill buckets with cold water. Meeting on the main road in their village, they doused each other, then raced back to refill their buckets. Soaked from head to toe, they removed their shirts and shoes and, with buckets in hand, looked like hunters waiting for their prey.

By midday, more children from the village had joined them. Now they numbered a dozen, all gathered in one spot, each holding a filled bucket. In the absence of villagers on foot, the children poured water onto passing cars, an unfortunate happenstance for those who forgot to close their windows. As the cars approached the children, drivers naturally slowed down, giving the children – now overwhelmed with excitement – the opportunity to open car doors and drench drivers and passengers.

Although young and old alike practice this custom, it is mostly the children who engage in this traditional “sprinkling.”

Due to water shortages in Yerevan, the element is a precious commodity not to be wasted. As a result, water is generally used with moderation. Despite the shortages, the “sprinkling” scene just described is not a rare sight in the streets of the capital either. Some people laugh and take their dousing in good humor, while others get angry, protest or try to convince the children not to drench them, most of the time in vain.

“If you dare to go out on Vardavar, you must be ready and willing to face the consequences – that is, to get totally soaked,” said Vartan, a young resident of Yerevan.

“I don’t know the religious meaning attached to this feast, but I know this custom has been practiced for centuries in Armenia and will continue for a long time to come,” he added.

The exact origins of Vardavar are not known. It is generally believed that in the early fourth century Gregory, the son of a Parthian noble, in an attempt to Christianize the Armenians, destroyed the temples built to honor Armenia’s pagan gods. Known as St. Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle to the Armenians, he constructed churches on sacred pagan sites and transformed pagan revels into Christian feasts.

Undoubtedly, Vardavar was a pagan feast that has been preserved in its “Christianized” form. There are several presumptions regarding the root and meaning of the word. Some scholars believe it is linked to the Armenian goddesses Astghik or Anahit. Since very little information about these goddesses of Armenian mythology is available, it is difficult to determine the relationship of this rite of sprinkling water to these pre-Christian Armenian deities and the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration.

For some historians, the word Vardavar is derived from the Hittite word “Vard,” which means water, and the verb “ar,” which means to wash. For others, Vardavar is composed of the Sanskrit words “Vard,” meaning water and “Var,” meaning sprinkle. Vardavar may mean “sprinkling of water.”

Other authorities are inclined to link this feast with Noah and the Great Flood; they ascribe the sprinkling of water and releasing of pigeons to the memory of this event.

On the day of the Transfiguration, vendors set up their stalls in front of Armenia’s churches. There they sell pigeons to those attending the liturgies.

“We bought two pigeons and, after circling the church several times with the birds, as is customary, we let them go,” reported residents Helen and Micha Minassian.

“We practice this custom every year during Vardavar. For us it symbolizes freedom and liberty; we believe that with the liberation of these pigeons, we can also liberate ourselves from our problems.”

Another major feast in Armenia is the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, celebrated on 15 August. The Armenian observances of this feast day differ from observances in other Christian countries.

Early in the morning, thousands of Armenians start making their way toward St. Astvazazin Church in Yerevan’s Nork district. According to tradition, these pilgrims cannot use any means of transport – donkey, cart, bus or car – but instead must walk the distance from their homes to the church.

Cages packed with hens and roosters line those roads that lead to the church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Vendors sell the fowl for the occasion, as it is customary in Armenia to offer a sacrifice on this day.

In Christian Armenia, the principal objective of offering sacrifice during feast days is to remember the suffering of the poor and to offer alms. Sacrificing animals such as sheep, lambs, hens and roosters is widely practiced in Armenia, but on the Feast of the Dormition this tradition has a rather special significance.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator introduced the blessing of salt to these ritual sacrifices. Consecrated salt is administered to the animal before it is sacrificed by the priest. Afterward, the priest blesses the family offering the sacrifice by using the animal’s blood to make the Sign of the Cross on each family member’s forehead.

Today Armenians in the West have replaced animal sacrifice with the giving of donations, which is not inconsistent with the religious objective of helping the needy. Yet, the sacrificing of animals continues to play an important role and remains an integral part of the Armenian tradition.

Once the pilgrims arrive outside St. Astvazazin Church they light candles and tie handkerchiefs onto trees. Armenians observe this tradition in churches throughout their country: Tying handkerchiefs onto trees near churches while praying is an old Armenian custom, the origins of which are still a mystery.

Some pilgrims enter the church holding their ritual offerings and wait for the priest to bless the animals and the salt, which is then put into each animal’s mouth before it is sacrificed. Those who can afford to buy a lamb or a mature sheep bring it along to the churchyard so the priest can bless the animal after the liturgy.

Gohar and Arpik are two sisters who live in Yerevan. They have celebrated the Dormition together for more than 20 years.

“Every year, we walk over an hour from our home to this site; even in the days when there was no church, we used to come here and light candles at the small chapel,” Arpik said.

“For us this pilgrimage reflects a spiritual custom – we come here to pray and to make vows. We buy a rooster and have it blessed by the priest, along with some salt. Then, after the animal is sacrificed, we cook a simple dish with its meat, give part of it to our neighbors and friends and share the rest among the family.

“This year my son finished his military service – he was based in Karabagh, which is a dangerous area – so we are here to thank God for returning him to us safe and sound,” Gohar added.

Often the animal chosen for the Dormition is sacrificed next to the church. The sight of blood pouring out of the animal and onto the ground is not a pleasant one; it can be shocking to those viewing it for the first time.

After cleaning and cooking the animal the meat is consumed. Some of the faithful prefer to picnic under shady trees near their churches. It is also customary to offer a piece of the meat to anyone who passes the table.

Instead of an animal sacrifice, many pilgrims prefer to purchase pigeons and, after a priest blesses the birds, the pilgrims circle the church three times, recite prayers and then set the pigeons free.

Despite centuries of isolation, war, persecution, oppression and even genocide, Armenian Christianity survives and prospers. Public expressions of faith, such as sprinkling and sacrificing, while perhaps pagan in origin, reveal the Armenian people’s respect for their past and their hope for a better tomorrow.

Armineh Johannes is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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