As part of an occasional series on how the end-of-year holidays are celebrated in some parts of our broadcast region, we talked to 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, even if the festive season took a bit of a battering under decades of secular Soviet orthodoxy.
Like much of the former U.S.S.R., New Year was 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 festivities.
“My grandmother or my grandmother’s mother went that day to the church,” says 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 the church in those times, because the Soviet Union and its people were atheist.”
Although Danielian adds that “everything has changed” since the fall of the U.S.S.R. 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’s why they have forgotten everything,” she says. “But…years ago, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, there were very many interesting Christmas songs and Christmas dances.... In those times, people at Christmas or New Year’s -- especially the children -- were going from one house to the other and singing songs and dancing.… But now we don’t have these things.”
Not all of the old ways have been lost, however. Given that Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity as far back as A.D. 301, Danielian says it’s 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 major celebration in Armenia, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are now also public holidays and the festive season usually continues until the Apostolic Church’s feast of the Epiphany on January 13.
Nonetheless, despite the Armenian church’s return to public life, many of its rituals are pretty loosely observed. For example, even though most Armenians are now aware that they should fast for the week leading up to Christmas, Danielian doesn’t believe many of her compatriots heed the call, especially as New Year is still such a big occasion and occurs not long after the prescribed period of abstinence begins.
“Our Armenian Apostolic Church is advising us not to eat meat or fish or milk or eggs from December 30 to January 5,” she says. “But generally, people eat everything…. We have New Year first, and at New Year we have many foods -- fish, meat, everything. I could not imagine a family where the table is not full of this very delicious food.”
One tradition that is still widely observed, however, occurs on Christmas Eve when Armenians go to the church to buy candles, which they take home to brighten the darkest days of winter.
“On the fifth of January in the evening, we all go to the churches, and afterwards we take lighted candles with us,” says Danielian. “We bring the candles home and we light them in our houses in order to light the house with light ‘from the church.’ And we keep them lit until they are gone.”
Many Armenians now also attend church for a special Christmas Mass the following day.
Many of the season’s social traditions have also become firmly reestablished in Armenia in the past 30 years, even if Danielian says they are now “very contemporary” and quite 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.
As is the case in many other places, however, COVID-19 has recently put a damper on the usual Christmas conviviality in Armenia.
“On Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day…we love to visit each other, to go to our relatives, brothers, and sisters. This is a family celebration, a family holiday,” says Danielian. “We like to visit each other, but as there has been a pandemic for the past year or so, the visits are somehow less frequent. We stay at home because we are afraid.”
Armenia’s recent conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region also ensures that the upcoming celebrations will be more subdued than usual.
“These 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 everything like that has gone.... That’s why we won’t have such a happy Christmas or New Year, but in the future we will.”
Although the tough times the country is going through means many Armenian households will refrain from making too merry at Christmas this year, it will be celebrated all the same.
And, says Danielian, the annual feast will still be a lavish affair with lots of local treats and delicacies, such as ghapama, a traditional stuffed-pumpkin dish, and gata, the “Armenian national candy.”
Besides these traditional specialties, Danielian says Christmas dinners in Armenia now also include a lot of outside influences.
“We now use everything European…pork, everything!” she says, adding that there’s no real limit to what Armenians might include in their Christmas meal, with family finances often being the only restriction on their culinary imagination. “Anyone who has money, who can buy this or that, puts everything on the table,” she says.
One dish that usually has pride of place at the feast, however, is rice pilaf with raisins and dried fruit (chamichov pilaf), which Danielian describes as a “typical Armenian dish” that is eaten at both Christmas and Easter and is usually served with fish.
“It’s a dish which consists of rice and sweet dried fruits cooked together with our Armenian bread, which is called lavash,” says Danielian. “We [can use] very many dried fruits, such as apples, pears, and also dried apricots -- they certainly must be there! It’s very beautiful on the plate and really great.”
How To Make Pilaf With Dried Fruits And Lavash
1 1/2 cups of rice
3 cups of water
50 g of dried apricots (or more if you prefer a fruitier pilaf)
50 g of prunes (or more if you prefer)
200 g of raisins
Traditional Armenian lavash bread
- Add the water to the rice with some salt to taste and bring to the boil.
- Strain the rice when it’s cooked and add a little butter.
- Fry the dried fruits and raisins in butter until they start to turn golden.
- Fry some round slices of lavash that have been buttered on both sides until they are nice and crispy.
- Lay the crispy lavash on the serving plate and heap the rice on top. Then add the fruits and raisins. Some people stir these into the rice first, while others suggest also covering 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 according to taste.