When “the light of the church” lights up the darkest days

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As part of an occasional series on how the holiday season is celebrated in parts of our broadcast region, we spoke to Gayane Danielian of RFE / RL’s Armenian Service about how Christmas is celebrated. in his country.

As the world’s oldest Christian nation, the spirit of Christmas runs deep in Armenian culture, even though the holiday season has been a bit roughed up under decades of secular Soviet orthodoxy.

Like much of the former USSR, the New Year has been the main winter celebration for most of the 20th century, despite the fact that January 6 – the date on which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas – had previously been the focal point of the festivities.

“My grandmother or my grandmother’s mother went to church that day,” says Gayane Danielian, an RFE / RL Armenian Service correspondent who grew up in Yerevan in the 1960s and 1970s. “But I never remember my father and mother going to church at that time, because the Soviet Union and its people were atheists.”

Although Danielian adds that “everything has changed” since the fall of the USSR in 1991 and “now even children know that January 6 is our Christmas”, many old seasonal customs were abandoned during the Communist interregnum of the country.

“Because… we lived in the Soviet Union, the church had no role in people’s lives. That’s why they forgot everything, ”she says. “But… years ago, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, there were many, many interesting Christmas songs and dances… At that time, people at Christmas or New Years – especially children – would go from house to house and sing songs and dance… But now we don’t have those things anymore.

A seasonal tree lights up Republic Square in Yerevan. (archive photo)

However, not all of the old ways have been lost. Given that Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity as early as 301 AD, Danielian says it’s no surprise that many Armenians still feel deep affinity with their ancient religious heritage.

“In the last 30 years since independence and the end of the Soviet Union, people have naturally become more attached to the church,” she says. “People know the church and all its rules. “

Although New Year is always a major holiday in Armenia, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are now also public holidays and the holiday season generally continues until the feast of the Apostolic Church of Epiphany on January 13.

The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II (center), says Christmas mass at the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan.  (archive photo)

The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II (center), says Christmas mass at the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan. (archive photo)

Nonetheless, despite the Armenian Church’s return to public life, many of its rituals are rather loosely observed. For example, even though most Armenians are now aware that they have to fast during the week leading up to Christmas, Danielian doesn’t think that many of his compatriots heed the call, especially since the New Year is always a so great occasion and occurs soon after the prescribed period of abstinence begins.

“Our Armenian Apostolic Church advises us not to eat meat, fish, milk or eggs from December 30 to January 5,” she said. “But in general, people eat everything…. First we have the New Year, and on the New Year we have many foods – fish, meat, everything. I couldn’t imagine a family where the table wouldn’t be full of this very delicious food.

A tradition that is still widely observed, however, occurs on Christmas Eve when Armenians go to church to buy candles, which they take home to brighten up the darker days of winter.

“On the evening of January 5, we all go to churches, and then we take lighted candles with us,” Danielian explains. “We take the candles home and light them in our homes to illuminate the house with ‘church’ light. And we keep them on until they are gone.

Many Armenians now go to church for a special Christmas mass the next day.

A young girl holds a candle outside the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan.  (archive photo)

A young girl holds a candle outside the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan. (archive photo)

A large number of social traditions of the season have also made a solid recovery in Armenia over the past 30 years, although Danielian says they are now “very contemporary” and quite similar to Christmas rituals common in many other parts of the world. “We visit and eat together; young people go to restaurants and bars, ”she says.

As is the case in many other places, however, COVID-19 has recently put a damper on the usual Christmas friendliness in Armenia.

“On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day… we love to visit each other, go to our parents, siblings. It’s a family celebration, a family vacation, ”says Danielian. “We love to visit each other, but since there has been a pandemic for about a year, the visits are sort of less frequent. We stay at home because we are afraid.

armenia recent conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region also guarantees that the upcoming celebrations will be more subdued than usual.

“The last few years have been very, very hard, very difficult and very sad years,” says Danielian. “After this war and its thousands of victims, singing songs and all that stuff is gone … That’s why we won’t have such a happy Christmas or New Year, but in the future we will. . “

Although the difficult times the country is going through will mean that many Armenian households will refrain from over-celebrating Christmas this year, it will be celebrated nonetheless.

Ghapama - a traditional Armenian stuffed pumpkin dish that is often served on Christmas.  (archive photo)

Ghapama – a traditional Armenian stuffed pumpkin dish that is often served on Christmas. (archive photo)

And, says Danielian, the annual party will always be a lavish affair with lots of goodies and local specialties, such as ghapama, a traditional dish of stuffed pumpkin, and gata, the “Armenian national candy”.

Besides these traditional specialties, Danielian says that Christmas dinners in Armenia now also include many outside influences.

Gata - shortbread cookies with nuts, vanilla and sugar - is a popular Christmas favorite in Armenia.  (archive photo)

Gata – shortbread cookies with nuts, vanilla and sugar – is a popular Christmas favorite in Armenia. (archive photo)

“We now use everything European… pork, everything! She said, adding that there is no real limit to what Armenians can include in their Christmas meal, family finances often being the only restriction on their culinary imaginations. “Anyone who has the money, who can buy this or that, puts it all on the table,” she says.

One dish that usually takes pride of place at the party, however, is rice pilaf with raisins and dried fruits (pilaf shamichov), which Danielian describes as a “typical Armenian dish” that is eaten both at Christmas and Easter and is usually served with fish.

“It is a dish that consists of rice and sweet dried fruits baked with our Armenian bread, which is called lavash, says Danielian. “We [can use] very many dried fruits, like apples, pears, and also dried apricots – they must certainly be there! It is very beautiful on the plate and really great.

How to make pilaf with dried fruits and lavash

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups of rice

3 cups of water

50 g of dried apricots (or more if you prefer a more fruity pilaf)

50 g of prunes (or more if you prefer)

200 g of raisins

Traditional Armenian lavash bread

Method

  1. Add water to the rice with a little salt to taste and bring to a boil.
  2. Filter the rice when it is cooked and add a little butter.
  3. Fry the dried fruits and raisins in butter until they begin to brown.
  4. Fry a few rings of lavash that have been buttered on both sides until nice and crispy.
  5. Place the crisp lavash on the serving platter and pile the rice on top. Then add the fruits and raisins. Some people mix them with rice first, while others also suggest cover the top of the pilaf with the crispy lavash make some kind of pie. Other fruits, like dried apples and dates, as well as nuts like walnuts and almonds, can also be added to the recipe to taste.
Written by Coilin O’Connor based on an interview with Gayane Danielian in Yerevan.
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