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Armenian Festivals in Iran
Encyclopedia Iranica

Nearly all the festivals of the Armenians of Persia are connected to the Armenian Church, which gives its sanction to them. Festivals from pre-Christian times, often with elements related to pre-Islamic Iranian beliefs, were absorbed and transformed into Christian festivals. Many of the ceremonies of daily life such as baptism, marriage and funerals, due to their semi-public components, can also be considered in the same category as festivals. Even secular holidays include a strong clerical presence.

Teanondaa, the festivity of the presentation of the Lord (baby Jesus) to the Temple, is originally based on a fire festival. On its eve, 13 February, after a religious service, the newly-married young men of that year would assemble around wood in the church courtyard which they would set on fire after paying money and gifts. The fire symbolized the heavenly groom who has married the church. Each villager then set his own candle on fire with this sacred fire to quickly set ablaze a woodpile at his own house (Raffi, pp. 168-176; Rāʿīn, p. 57; Russell, pp. 499-502). In the villages of Pʿēria and other regions, the young men jumped three times over the fire. The ashes were thought to bring fertility to animals, and good luck (Eremean, pp. 115-16; Boettiger, p. 57).

The pagan feast of Vardavarʿ, connected with the cult of the goddess Anahit (see AHĀHĪD), was transformed into the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aylakerputʿiwn). Fourteen Sundays after Easter, in mid-summer, it commemorates Christ’s appearance with a shining countenance to three disciples. After a priest sets doves flying, he sprinkles the people with blessed water, and then the people sprinkle and throw water on each other. They adorn each other with roses; in some places games are played afterwards (Ormanean, tr., pp. 33-34; Eremean, p. 121; Boettiger, pp. 56-57; Russell, pp. 251-52, 378).

On the Feast of the Assumption (Verapʿoxum) of the Holy Virgin Mary, in mid-August, the first grapes of the summer are blessed by a priest, thus allowing grape eating to begin for the summer (Boettiger, pp. 67-68; Kushakean, tr., pp. 43-44; Eremean, p. 122).

On the eve of the springtime Ascension Day of Christ (Hambardzum), young girls and brides go to pick flowers and sing, dance, and eat. Upon returning to their village, they place small personal objects in a pot already containing either sand or water, depending on the locale, from which the next day a little girl choses. Either an older woman tells their fortune, or the lines of a song sung when their tokens are chosen are understood as prophesy (Eremean, pp. 119-21; Boettiger, pp. 62-66; Russell, pp. 375-86).

Christmas commemorations were generally more elaborate in the past. Travelers in particular were impressed by the ceremonies and processions in the Safavid period. At times the shah himself would participate with court members in New Julfa on 6 January, the day Armenians celebrated the birth and baptism of Christ (Della Valle, III, pp. 100-13; Struys, II, pp. 325-26). Visits back and forth between Armenian families would then take place as long as for the next forty days (Freericks, p. 44; Eremean, p. 115; Yovhannisean, p. 33). Even on Christmas Eve, in certain villages, remnants of various ceremonies connected with fire such as the welcoming of a new large log for the family hearth for good luck continued to be practiced (Shahbaz, p. 136).

Easter, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, aside from church services, includes visits to the homes of families and friends. Painting of eggs, egg-cracking contests, and dancing takes place (Eremean, p. 119; Rāʿīn, p. 58; Tēr-Petrosean, 31 March 1994; Yovhannisean, p. 33; Höltzer, p. 64). During Bun Barekendan or Shrovetide (preceding the pre-Easter fast of Lent), the poor are given gifts of money, music is played in the streets, and, at in some areas, a crowd dressed in costume, e.g., as Kurdish or Iranian feudal lords, went from house to house collecting food and gifts. Jesters amused the villagers. Afterwards, the crowd went to eat and drink outside of the village (Raffi, pp. 250-253; Hacʿuni, pp. 400-402).

Armenians traditionally made pilgrimages to regional churches on Sundays and particularly on the commemorative day of the saints the churches were named after. These were occasions to both worship and picnic in the church orchard (e.g., on Tabriz, Yovhannisean, pp. 24-26). The most famous contemporary pilgrimage in Persia was formally instituted in 1954 to Surb Tʿadēos (Saint Thaddeus) the Apostle Monastery in western Azerbaijan. Hundreds and even thousands of Armenians participate in three July days of praying, lighting candles, eating, and dancing (Pōłosean, pp. 578-79; H. Ačēmean; Papean; “S. Tʿadēi vankʿi uxtaworneri veradarjə”; Hariwrawor hawatacʿealner …”).

St. Vardan’s Day in February commemorates the martyrdom for Christianity of an Armenian general and his followers at the battle of Avarayr in 451 C.E. by Persian forces pressing for a return to Zoroastrianism. It is celebrated today throughout Persia as an important part of Armenian identity, with evening religious services, songs, and recitations by schoolchildren, and speeches by adults (Tēr-Petrosean, 8 February, 1994; “Vardanancʿ pʿaṙatōni handisutʿiwn”; “Ceṙnarkner Urmiayum”; Boettiger, pp. 61-62). Traditionally, however, some parts of Persia such as Pʿēria did not commemorate it (Eremean, p. 117).

Weddings traditionally lasted as long as seven days and seven nights, with an elaborate sequence of feasts held in the homes of the parents of the bride and groom, as well as church services. Not only was there eating, drinking, dancing, and henna painting of hands, but formidable processions, often on horseback, through the streets at night with music, candles, and even at times fireworks, took place. In various parts of Persia, different symbolic ceremonies were included. In New Julfa, for example, red and green silk ribbons were tied on the groom’s chest. Less affluent families scaled down the marriage festivities, and by mid-twentieth century they generally only lasted a few days (Raffi, pp. 219-22; Fryer, pp. 277-82; Petrosean, pp. 125-47; Abgareancʿ, pp. 194-205; Eremean, pp. 106-10; Tavernier, pp. 192-94; Höltzer, pp. 66-70).

Baptisms on Christmas day were given a particularly dramatic form, with priests plunging infants three times into a river from special boats with crosses and banners. The Persian shahs would attend such occasions at Isfahan, and afterwards participate in a grand repast (Tavernier, pp. 187-91; Boettiger, pp. 79-80).

Funerals include dramatic crying and wailing in addition to church services and the burial. Prayers are chanted during the carrying of the corpse to the cemetery. Special meals are held for family and friends, who often stay in the home of the bereaved for several days. Forty days after the death, a requiem service is offered, ending the official mourning period (Richards, pp. 86-87; Petrosean, pp. 152-55; Tavernier, pp. 195-97; Tēr-Petrosean, 8 February 1994). The day after Easter is the most prominent of five yearly merelocʿ or days of the dead. In addition to church services, at the cemetery, priests chant prayers over the graves of loved ones, and then families proceed to picnic (Petrosean, p. 158; Boettiger, pp. 58-61).

New Year’s Eve Festival: Among the more secular holidays, the New Year’s Eve festival is the most important. Gifts are exchanged and special foods prepared and eaten at festive family tables. In recent times, “Father Winter” or “Father New Year” carries out the gift-giving role of the Western Santa Claus. On New Year’s day, many Armenians go to church for services (Boettiger, pp. 68-69; Eremean, p. 114; Tʿłʿagicʿ, pp. 5-6). The commemoration of the 1915-18 genocide perpetrated against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire takes place every 24 April. Armenians gather locally throughout Persia and protest in church ceremonies, speeches, and large processions, which, political conditions permitting, are usually done publicly.

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