New Years marks the end of the holiday season in the United States, but in Armenia it is only just beginning. There, first comes the New Year, then comes Christmas. New Year’s Eve opens two holiday weeks during which Armenians celebrate the Nativity of Christ, his Baptism and Epiphany. From December 31 to January 13, Armenian families visit family and friends, exchange gifts, and come together to drink and feast.
Just before midnight on New Years Eve, Ruzanna Tsaturyan, co-curator of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2018 program, Armenia: Creating a home, and his family gather around the dining table for the countdown. After the kisses and toast, the banquet begins. The table is loaded with a sumptuous spread of ham, stuffed cabbages, cheeses, cold cuts, cakes and many good drinks.
“The table must be so covered with food that you can’t even lower your hand,” says Ruzanna. “And everyone has to eat a bit of everything.”
A special sweetbread called tarehats, which means “New Year’s bread,” is an important part of the meal. Similar to a three kings cake, a bean, a coin or a small button is baked in the bread. Armenians believe that whoever finds the trinket in its slice will enjoy good fortune in the coming year. Ruzanna says that when she was lucky, she kept her charm in her wallet until the next Tare hat was cut.
“The Grandfather of Winter,” a figure similar to Santa Claus, also makes an appearance on New Year’s Eve. In more traditional homes, children wake up to find gifts under their pillows. Many use a family friend or neighbor to dress up and hand out gifts to their little ones. In Ruzanna, the winter grandfather is more enigmatic. There is a knock on the door, and when the children go to answer it, they find their gifts on the porch or on the front lawn.
During the Soviet regime from 1920 to 1991, religious practices were prohibited and, according to Ruzanna, this greatly influenced the way Armenians celebrated the holidays. In an effort to secularize the season, the state made a concerted effort to shift attention from Christmas to New Years. In this way, the festivities could continue without religious overtones. Many Armenian families have therefore kept their prayers and Christian practices discreetly within their homes.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, older traditions, many of which had lain dormant for the past seventy years, were revived. Churches across the country have started to hold liturgies and teach parishioners how to keep holy days or religious holidays. Ironically, the Armenian Apostolic Church adopted Christianity in CE301, making Armenians one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Until the 4th century, most Christians celebrated the birth of Christ in early January. The Roman Catholic Church moved the date to December 25 to co-opt pagan winter solstice celebrations. However, because Armenians belong to the Apostolic Church, they continued to celebrate Christmas in early January.
On Christmas Eve, January 5, Armenians light their homes and churches with candles to light up the end of dark days and long nights. Christmas Day is known to Armenians as the day of the blessing of water to commemorate the baptism of Christ; holy water, blessed by the chief priest, is shared with the families of the community.
“We wash our hands with this water and put it on the parts of our body that need healing,” says Ruzanna.
Water cleanses the body and the house, and its blessing protects against disease or misfortune in the coming year. Sometimes priests are invited to the house to bless the corners of the house, as well as staple foods like bread and salt. Afterwards, families sit down for a special meal consisting of fish, usually trout, and rice pilau with raisins. They drink red wine, symbolizing the blood of Christ.
Boxing Day is Memorial Day, a time to remember loved ones who have passed away during the year. People visit the intricately carved tombstones, or khachkars, friends and family who have passed away, and adorn them with flowers or food offerings from the Christmas table. They tell stories about the deceased and carry elaborate toasts in their memory.
The holidays end on January 13, marking the start of the “old” new year. The date is a holdover from the Julian calendar, which was later replaced by the Gregorian calendar in most countries.
In Armenia, New Year and Christmas traditions are mixed. The standard greeting for the holidays is “Happy New Year and Christmas!” And families decorate “holiday trees” at home. This time is the time of beginnings: the birth of Christ and the start of a new year.
Recipe: Armenian Lent Cabbage Tolma for the New Year
For Ruzanna and her family, and many others, it’s not New Years without a tantalizing tolma of cabbage leaves marinated with grains and beans, called Պասուց տոլմա Pasuts Tolma, or Lent Tolma. The recipe for this treat is passed down from mother to daughter and each region has its own spices. Most of the recipes are not written, but learned by looking and measured in “eye or hand size experience” as they say in Armenia. The preparation is demanding, but the results are delicious and healthy, and will bring a taste of delicious Armenian cuisine to your table. Ruzanna shares her family’s recipe here.
Pasuts Tolma (Stuffed Pickled Cabbage)
- ½ cup each of dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur and uncooked rice
- 1 16 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 large yellow onion
- ¼ cup olive or vegetable oil
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried barberry or buckthorn berries (see note) or 1 tablespoon of dried thyme if not available
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 large head of collard greens (in Armenia pickled cabbage is used)
- 2 cups prepared rosehip juice or 4 tablespoons whipped tomato paste in 2 cups lukewarm water (see note)
The day before cooking, soak the beans and cereals in enough water to cover them, each in a separate bowl, to soften them. In the morning, cook the legume kernels until tender – beans will take longer than grains. Cook the onions in the oil until golden and caramelized (about 10 minutes), add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil. Add the cooked cereal and barberry, buckthorn or thyme, as well as salt and pepper to taste, and mix until well incorporated.
Prepare the cabbage leaves by steaming the cabbage head until the leaves are soft and pliable. (When using marinated cabbage leaves in Armenia, the salt is washed off.) To roll each tolma, place a large cabbage leaf on a flat surface, add a large spoonful of the grain mixture in the center and roll up, folding the sides towards the center. It takes a little practice to do well! Place a few extra cabbage leaves that weren’t the best for rolling in the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Arrange the tolma in a circle or spiral at the bottom of the pot. After all the tolma are arranged, pour the prepared rosehip juice or tomato paste mixed with water onto the rollers. Place more cabbage leaves on top, flip a heavy plate on top, bring to a boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes or until softened and cooked through. Enjoy it as part of your New Years party! Bari akhorjak ախորժակ, bon appétit!
Note on barberry and buckthorn: it is easy to find dried barberry Where buckthorn berries on Amazon or in the Middle East markets.
Note on the preparation of rosehip juice: Rosehip juice is a good source of vitamin C and adds a pretty pink tint and distinctive flavor to these tolma. To make your own rosehip juice: add boiling water to the dried rosehips, which you can buy at Amazon or at a health food store. Leave them in the water overnight and strain the juice. You will need about two cups for this recipe. As an alternative, tomato paste mixed with water works as a colored replacement.