When ‘Light from the Church’ brightens the darkest days

When ‘Light from the Church’ brightens the darkest days

As part of an occasional series on how the end of the year is celebrated in some parts of our broadcast region, we spoke with Gayane Danielian from RFE / RL’s Armenian Service about how Christmas is celebrated in her country.

As the world’s oldest Christian nation, the spirit of Christmas runs deep in Armenian culture, although the festive season took a bit of a hit during decades of secular Soviet orthodoxy.

Like much of the former USSR, the New Year was the most important winter celebration of most of the 20th century, despite the fact that January 6 – the date Armenian Apostolic Church celebrating Christmas – had previously been the focal point of the festivities.

“My grandmother or my grandmother’s mother went to church that day,” said Gayane Danielian, a correspondent for RFE / RL’s Armenian Service, who grew up in Yerevan in the 1960s and ’70s. “But I never remember my father and mother going to church back then 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 fell by the wayside during the country’s communist interregnum.

“Because… we lived in the Soviet Union, the church had no role in people’s lives. That is why they have forgotten everything, ”she says. “But … years ago, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, there were a lot of interesting Christmas songs and dances … In those days, people went to Christmas or New Year – especially the children – from one house to another. the other and singing songs and dancing … But now we do not have these things. “

A seasonal tree lights up Yerevan's Republic Square.  (file image)

A seasonal tree lights up Yerevan’s Republic Square. (file image)

However, not all the old ways have been lost. Considering that Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity as far back as 301 AD, Danielian says it is not surprising that many Armenians still feel a deep affinity with their ancient religious heritage.

“In the last 30 years since independence and the end of the Soviet Union, people have naturally connected more with the church,” she says. “The people know the church and all its rules.”

Although New Year is still a big party in Armenia, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are now also holidays and the feast usually continues until the Epiphany of the Apostolic Church on January 13th.

The supreme leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II (center), says Christmas Mass in St.  Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan.  (file image)

The supreme leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II (center), says Christmas Mass in St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan. (file image)

Nevertheless, despite the Armenian Church’s return to public life, many of its rituals are rather loosely observed. For example, although most Armenians are now aware that they should fast in the week leading up to Christmas, Danielian does not believe that many of her countrymen listen to the call, especially since New Year is still such a big event and occurs not long after . the prescribed period of abstinence begins.

“Our Armenian Apostolic Church advises us not to eat meat or fish or milk or eggs from December 30 to January 5,” she says. “But in general, people eat everything … We have New Year’s first, and for New Year’s we have a lot of food – fish, meat, everything. I could not imagine a family where the table is not filled with this very delicious food.”

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

“On the evening of the fifth of January, we all go to church, and afterwards we bring lighted candles,” says Danielian. “We take the candles home and we turn them on in our houses to illuminate the house with lights ‘from the church’. And we keep them on until they are gone.”

Many Armenians now also go to church for a special Christmas Mass the following day.

A young girl holds a candle outside St.  Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan.  (file image)

A young girl holds a candle outside St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Yerevan. (file image)

Many of the social traditions of the season have also been solidly re-established in Armenia for the past 30 years, although Danielian says they are now “very contemporary” and similar to the usual Christmas rituals in many other parts of the world. “We visit and eat with each other; young people go to restaurants and bars, ”she says.

However, as is the case in many other places, COVID-19 has recently put a damper on the usual Christmas cheer in Armenia.

“Christmas Day and New Year … we love to visit each other, to go to our relatives, brothers and sisters. This is a family party, a family holiday,” says Danielian. “We like to visit each other, but since there have been “A pandemic of the last year, the visits are somehow rarer. We stay at home because we are scared.”

Armenians recent conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region also ensures that the upcoming celebrations will be more subdued than usual.

“The last years were very, very hard years, very difficult and very sad years,” says Danielian. “After this war and its thousands of victims, singing songs and all that sort of thing are gone … That’s why we do not have such a merry Christmas or New Year, but in the future we will.”

Although the hard times the country is going through mean that many Armenian households will refrain from making too happy at Christmas this year, it will still be celebrated.

Ghapama - a traditional Armenian stuffed pumpkin that is often served for Christmas.  (file image)

Ghapama – a traditional Armenian stuffed pumpkin that is often served for Christmas. (file image)

And, says Danielian, the annual party is still becoming a lavish affair with lots of local delicacies and treats, such as. ghapama, a traditional stuffed pumpkin, and ready, the “Armenian national candy.”

In addition to these traditional specialties, Danielian says that Christmas dinners in Armenia now also include a lot of outside influences.

Gata - shortbread with nuts, vanilla and sugar - is a popular Christmas favorite in Armenia.  (file image)

Gata – shortbread with nuts, vanilla and sugar – is a popular Christmas favorite in Armenia. (file image)

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

A dish that usually has a large place at the party, however, is rice pilaf with raisins and dried fruit (chamichov pilaf), which Danielian describes as a “typical Armenian dish”, eaten for both Christmas and Easter and usually served with fish.

It is a dish consisting of rice and sweet dried fruits cooked with our Armenian bread, which is called lavash“, says Danielian.” We [can use] lots of dried fruits, such as apples, pears and also dried apricots – they should definitely be there! It is very beautiful on the plate and really good. ”

How to make pilaf with dried fruit and lavash

ingredients

1 1/2 cups rice

3 cups of water

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

50 g prunes (or more if you prefer)

200 g raisins

Traditional Armenian lavash bread

Method

  1. Add the water to the rice with a little salt to taste and bring to a boil.
  2. Strain the rice when cooked and add a little butter.
  3. Fry the dried fruits and raisins in butter until they start to turn golden.
  4. Fry some round slices lavash greased on both sides until neat and crisp.
  5. Put it crispy lavash on the plate and place the rice on top. Then add the fruits and raisins. Some people touch these in the rice first, while others also suggest cover the top of the pilaf with crispy lavash to make a kind of pie. Other fruits, such as 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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