Experiencing Traditional Holidays in Armenia


Asbarez contributor Catherine Yesayan, who is the one of two authors of the “Community Links” column spent the summer in Armenia. Throughout her trip, she reported on the interesting places she visited and people she met along her journey. Yesayan had the opportunity to experience two traditional Armenian holidays—Vardavar, the feast of water, and the Feast of the Virgin Mary, the blessing of the grapes—in Armenia. In this Year-End Special Issue we feature her first hand experiences of these events in Armenia.

An Escapade in Yerevan

Am I lucky or what? Last year while I was doing a research online for a column about the “Water Feast,” an old Armenian tradition of dousing each other with water, I found pictures taken in Yerevan showing kids throwing buckets of water. I wished that one day I could be there in person, watching those kids in action and taking my own pictures.

The date of the Water Feast, called “Vardavar,” varies. It usually falls in August and like Easter on a Sunday. I remember when I was young in Tehran, the coming of Vardavar was bitter-sweet. The joy of dousing each other was countered by the fact that it signified the end of the summer.

This year, making arrangements for my travels to Armenia, I didn’t pay attention to the date of Vardavar. I just thought, “No question, I’ll be there for Vardavar.” My plan was to be in Yerevan by the middle of July.

Yerevan welcomed me with a bang. I arrived Saturday July 14, and discovered that the following day was Vardavar! On Sunday morning, I looked out my window to the street and saw kids walking with buckets in their hands. My heart skipped a beat. I was so excited to go outside and see how they celebrated the feast.

Our celebration of Vardavar, in Tehran, was subdued. I usually woke up with a splash of water on my face from my younger brother. Later in the day, we went to a swimming pool and used the excuse of Vardavar to splash each other. In the United States while my kids were growing up, we hardly celebrated the feast at all.

In Armenia I was as excited as a little kid to watch the revelers. At first I was hesitant to go out, because I had heard there is no mercy. No matter what; you would be doused.

I put on a light outfit, took my iPhone to use as a camera, and went outside to our courtyard, where the young kids were so well behaved. They were from America, all wearing the latest fashion American outfits and sneakers.

Then a young mother came with a bucket of water in her hand. She started splashing the kids from the bucket. I took a few pictures and then joined the gang to go outside of the apartment complex and continue the celebration.

In Yerevan all over the city, there are drinking water fountains. We proceeded to one of the fountains. The kids filled their buckets and doused each other. They respected me and didn’t splash water on me. I was able to catch a few nice pictures. Satisfied with my work, I went back home. Then my friend called and asked me if I’d like to go to the main square where the real action was.

“Curiosity killed the cat.” So we drove to the main square where the kids were soaking wet. They were using water from the pond at the main square to douse each other. Their fight was fierce and without mercy.

My friend sat in front of the Marriott Hotel to have a “marozhni” ice cream. I proceeded to the battleground by the pond. While I was standing at the red light to cross the street, a car stopped and someone from inside sprayed me with a water gun. I quickly hid my iPhone so it wouldn’t get wet.

With doubtful steps, I reached the other side of the square and entered the war zone. They were mostly older kids and they were wreaking havoc. First I took pictures from the fringes, but then realizing my iPhone was not equipped to take nice pictures from afar, I proceeded slowly to the center.

My escapade was over when someone emptied a bucket of water on my head from behind. I got soaked from head to toe. I was pretty darn sure that was going to happen. At least I had a towel in my purse which absorbed the water. When I got home I had to lay out all my paper money on the table to dry. The damage was not grave and the joy was worth the dare. I was able to take only one incredible picture at the square.

At age 64, that was the best Vardavar I have ever celebrated.

Blessing Of The Grapes: A Memorable Experience

My grandmother refused to eat grapes each year until the day grapes were blessed at the church by the priest.

Each year, on the Sunday closest to the date of August 15, the Armenian Church, all over the world, celebrates the Blessing of the Grapes. The feast predates Christianity, and has its roots in pagan times. Originally, it was a traditional homage to the gods. Today, the blessing of the grapes has become a religious ceremony dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

When I was growing up, there was a kind of red grapes in Iran that were small, bead-like and had dense clusters. They were the most delicious grapes you’ll ever eat. They are called “Yaghouty” meaning “ruby-like.”

The Yaghouty grapes come early in the season, and they’re gone before the blessing of the grapes. When I was young, I was so sad that grandma had never tasted Yaghouty grapes. I remember I would insist that she try just one small piece, but she would refuse.

She had other rules, too. For instance, she would not touch a needle to sew anything after sunset on Saturdays until Monday morning. She was very strict in complying with her rules. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t take after her and make rules of my own. Instead, I raised my kids with a “lassez-faire” attitude. I’m not sure whether I was right or wrong.

I was surprised recently to learn that my friend Sona, with whom I was traveling in Armenia, had this practice in common with my grandma. She also refused to eat grapes until they were blessed.

We decided make it special for Sona to break the fast while we were in Armenia. We looked around and came upon a church not too far from Yerevan, built in 1212 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Coincidentally, on the day of the Blessing of the Grapes, the church was going to celebrate its 800 years of existence.

We did a little more research, and learned that the church was located not too far from a village named “Aghtsk,” where a yoga retreat had recently been established. What?

A yoga retreat at a village in Armenia was the last thing I would have imagined. We decided to stay at the retreat for a week, and on Sunday, St. Mary’s Day, visit the church and attend the mass for the blessing of the grapes.

The retreat was a labor of love completed by Al Eisaian and his wife from Glendale, California. I asked Eisaian about his purpose in establishing it. He told me that, as many Armenians living outside of Armenia have adopted the country and contributed to its development, they too wanted in their own way bestow a gift to the Armenian homeland by building a yoga retreat.

They bought an existing home on the top of a hill in the village, added a few more rooms, and very tastefully remodeled the whole building inside and out. They kept the indigenous color of red on the outside walls and added a generous wrap-around terraced balcony.

It won’t be an exaggeration if I say the building, especially the bathrooms, look like they have sprung out of the pages of Architectural Digest. It took them six years to complete the renovations to the building, and it happened that Sona and I were their first official guests!

We stayed there for a week. At the village, we learned that pilgrimage to the church, on St. Mary’s Day, is a well-kept tradition. Nouneh, the assistant director at the retreat, had a hard time finding a car that on Sunday could take us to the church. Everybody wanted to take their own families to the church. Finally, after many inquiries, Nouneh was able to arrange for a local man to drive us up to the church.

The road was winding and it took about 20 minutes to reach there. As we got close to the church, we noticed colorful umbrellas that vendors had set along the path. There was a huge crowd, and police was monitoring the traffic. We arrived at the church before noon. the mass had not yet concluded, and the grapes were not yet blessed.

Usually, old Armenian churches are constructed in two parts. First you enter an anteroom which is a large hall with many pillars, and from there you enter a room where the altar is and where the mass is conducted. We bought candles and lit them in the anteroom.

At the altar, the priest and the deacons in their colorful and decorated silky robes were conducting a beautiful mass. Sona could sing along with the choir. I envied her because she knew all the words by heart. Fresh flowers were placed at the foot of the altar, and when the mass was over they brought grapes in plastic grocery bags and they made room for grapes by rearranging the flowers.

There, we met Mykael Mykaelian, who introduced himself as the Godfather of the church. Every year, someone is selected as the Godfather. He invited us to his home in Yerevan for an offering of “madagh,” which is a meal prepared from the meat of a sacrificed animal. Invitations like this are common in Armenia but we declined his offer because we had other plans.

“Madagh” is a mercy offering intended for the poor and needy, but it has turned into the food served on St. Mary’s Day. The tradition of sacrificing an animal can be traced back to the Old Testament and the book of Genesis.

Four years ago, on the day of St. Mary’s feast in 2008, I was in the city of Nice in France. The Armenian church there was celebrating its 80th anniversary and the “blessing of the grapes.” They, too, provided free meals to the crowd from their morning sacrifice of the lambs.

Celebrating the Blessing of the Grapes at an old monastery church was a memorable experience for Sona and I. We tasted another tradition of a country steeped in history. On the way up to the church and down, there were numerous cars stalled with their hoods up, a testament of the poor conditions our people live in. The driver charged us 12,000 drams about $30, to take us up to the church and back to Yerevan. It was totally worth it.

This Summer at TUMO Center


Upon graduating from college this last year, I decided to spend my first 3 months out of school, living in Armenia. My experience in June began with meeting as many new faces as I could, and taking lots of photos in a number of remote locations around the country. Being interested in photography all of my life, as well as film, I found lots of inspiration within the homeland.

Soon enough, I realized that the three months I had planned weren’t going to be enough. I added 2 more to my trip. At this point, I had started working on and off as a workshop leader at the Tumo Center for digital arts and technology.

When arrived this summer Tumo wasn’t a name that was unfamiliar to me. My initial experience at the center happened during my last trip to Armenia, in early 2010, when I was a Birthright Armenia volunteer. We were once brought into what was only to be the skeleton of that which stands today. No students, no coaches, no classes. Just eager minds ready to create a space for more creativity, and it would be the youthful kind.

Birthright Armenia introduced our group of volunteers to Marie Lou Papazian, who now serves as the Director of the center once it opened. In 2010, all she had was a Power Point presentation on what Tumo was to become; it was the dream of providing opportunities for kids in Armenia to gain knowledge and practice in technology and art.

The center that stands today was the result of that idea. The main efforts to establish the center were due to the Simonian foundation, whose founders Sam Simonian and his wife Silva have made sure that Tumo doesn’t require tuition from its students, as long as they are fully committed to their coursework.

By bringing together art & technology in different forms: robotics, music, animation, and filmmaking, the Tumo center’s prospective goal is setting out to create a new generation of competitive youth in Armenia.

My workshop surrounded the practice of short-form documentary storytelling. The ultimate goal of the workshop was a series of 5 to 7 minute videos prepared by the students. With little to no experience shooting and editing their own videos, a lot of technical instruction was to be given during the workshop. And thankfully Tumo provided me with two coaches and plenty of resources to get the ball rolling.

We started the first session of class watching various examples of what documentary videos looked like, and criticized both what students liked and did not like about these videos. Then I gave them their first assignment, which was a compositional exercise for which they would each collected 9 compositions that were to be analyzed and presented to the entire group of students.

The following week we analyzed their composition assignments, and each presentation was completely different then the last. I really wanted them to focus on why composition matters, before we moved on to anything else. If something didn’t look okay to them I wanted them to understand why they felt uneasy about certain compositions and favored others. Was it the lighting? The placement? The textures? And I think they understood the point quite well.

In the second week of the workshops, kids came back with proposals for their final projects. As the coaches and I reviewed their proposals we set up shooting dates and coordinated their schedules for the following week. Second week we also had breakdown camera and editing workshops.

And the last week was spent editing their final presentations. We were actually using the same camera I have, as well as the editing software I use myself. And that allowed me to go very much into detail on how to address certain issues they might have while learning how to use these new tools. I really wanted to understand that playing around with these tools is always important. In order to understand that their isn’t just one way to shoot and edit a video.

So when presentation day finally came, kids brought parents, their friends and fellow Tumo colleagues to watch. The projector was on, the lights were shut off, and the first documentary started to play for an audience of about 50 people.

Suddenly, I found myself looking at the audience members instead of looking at the student films (which I’d already seen). As cheesy as it sounds, I was reminded of my some of my own first screenings. A sensation of proud hysteria and being bothered by thoughts of what could have been improved, if the sound level were okay, or if that one shot is consistent with the rest of the edit.

And then I realized that what I actually wanted my students to take away from this workshop more than any of the technical skills, was the sensation of experiencing that moment. The moment that inspires you to do it all over again, to build off of past ideas, experience and of course, a great number of mistakes. I was very happy when the lights came on and saw the reaction on many of the students’ expressions and that sigh of relief in their faces. I’m glad that I was able to spend time with such an eager and fun group of kids.