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Armenia: Church Attacks “Pseudo-Religious” Festivals

Young Armenians are mixing up pagan, Christian and Western love festivals – and the church is not impressed.
By Karine Ter-Saakian

Jumping over fires, eating salty cakes and sending cards with hearts on them: young Armenian sweethearts are likely to be doing all of these things over the coming days.


With three festivals falling within a few days of each other, including the increasingly popular international lovers’ date St Valentine’s Day, Armenians themselves often mix up old and new customs. To some, this is all part of the country opening up to the outside world; others, especially the church, strongly disapprove.


On February 13, fires are lit all over Armenia for pairs of sweethearts and newly married couples to jump over. This original way of celebrating the Candlemas Day in Armenia is over 1700 years old and many people confuse it with St Sargis’ Day, commemorating a fourth century martyr and supposed patron of love, a few days earlier.


And since the rest of the world celebrates February 14 as St Valentine’s Day, Armenia follows suit. “I really love Valentine’s Day and always get presents,” said Lusine, 20. “And if we don’t know what holiday the Armenian [Apostolic] Church is observing on this day, then it is the Church’s fault.”


The Armenian Apostolic Church takes a far from indulgent view of this, seeing it as a sign that Armenians are turning away from religion.


“We have an extremely negative attitude towards all these pseudo-religious holidays that came to Armenia from the West,” said Father Vahram Melikian press secretary for the Armenian church. “They bring nothing but harm.”


Fr Vahram said the Armenian church – traditionally said to have been founded in 301 AD – had always been with its people and helped them preserve their identity. He said that priests do take part in many popular rituals that are obviously pre-Christian and pagan, such as animal sacrifices, jumping over a fire on Candlemas Day and blessing the vine grapes on the Day of Blessed Virgin.


“But St Valentine’s Day should not be observed in Armenia - we have enough of our own holidays that are much more ancient than this obscure story of some lover,” said Fr Vahram.


St Sargis’ Day is always celebrated on the first Friday of February. He was an early Christian warrior who was martyred on January 31, 363. Armenian folk tradition had it that he had abducted his beloved and then married her, making him a patron saint for lovers.


On the Friday before St Sargis’ Day, young people traditionally eat salty biscuits before going to bed, and whomever they see in their dream bringing them water will marry them. They can also put a plate with flour in it in front of their house, and if in the morning they can find a horseshoe print on a plate that means that St Sargis came over and gave his blessing.


The commercial importance of the week between St Sargis’ and St Valentine’s Day is assured. This week is already seeing a lively trade in the shops for small souvenirs, “Sargis” and Valentine cards and cosmetics.


“From February 7 to February 15, we sell more of everything – from expensive cosmetics to postcards,” said a shop assistant in Hayastan, one of the largest shops in Yerevan. “Sometimes we even have to close shop later than usual. This year we’ve had a lot of corporate orders – when large companies and banks purchased gifts for all their staff.”


The day also gets a large share of weddings and engagement ceremonies because, according to the Armenian church calendar, a week after the Candlemas Day comes the Shrovetide, and then the beginning of Lent. “They say if you get married on February 13 or 14, the marriage will be a happy one,” said a young Yerevan resident, Artur. “And you can’t get married during Lent as the Church forbids it. Although I doubt that my parents were unhappy – no one observed any church canons during the Soviet times at all, and everything was fine.”


“Last year, at night I made a horseshoe print by the door of the girl I love, and then she kept telling everyone that she was visited by the saint,” said Samvel. “And only then she agreed to go out with me. I did tell her the truth later, though. So all these days are just a tribute to conventions and traditions. I personally don’t care whether it’s Sargis or Valentine, as long as my beloved is with me.”


The dispute between church and young people exposes some contradictions about what young Armenians think about their traditions. Although Armenia prides itself on being the “oldest Christian nation in the world”, church attendance is relatively low and knowledge of church practices and teachings is patchy after years of communist rule. Most Armenians now go to church for baptisms and weddings, and they appear to be doing so more for the sake of tradition than out of faith. Few couples, as prescribed, come to the altar after a week of fasting and prayer.


The Church now considers even such seemingly innocent rituals as sending Valentine cards to be undermining its authority.


Father Aram Mailian, who teaches theology, said, “It starts with innocent greetings and cards, then comes joining a sect and that’s it – the person is lost for the Armenian church.” Even the head of the Church Catholicos Garegin II has expressed his concern.


“Overall I think that recently the church has interfered into our lives way too much, and before you know it they’ll make us fast and declare you a bad Armenian if you refuse,” countered Armine, manager of a Yerevan supermarket.


“A holy place is never empty,” deputy minister of culture Karine Khodikian told IWPR. “The Armenian church failed to explain in good time which saint should be given preference, and it is to blame for the fact that our young people send each other Valentines instead of Sargises. But I think not all is lost, and the Church can still repair its omission. In any event, I believe that everyone should do what they feel is right. You can’t achieve anything by forbidding things – you can only make it worse.”


Karine Ter-Saakian is a reporter for the Respublika Armeina newspaper in Yerevan.


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