Zeytun 1913. Mihran Saatdjian (centre) and his family (Source: Rev Mashtots Voskerichian, Zeytun – album, Beirut, 1960)

Zeytun - Festivals

Author: Sonia Tashjian, 20/6/12 (Last modified 20/6/12)- Translator: Ara Melkonian

The person from Zeytun observes festival days with special solemnity, love and fervency. These days have a special appeal; everyone without exception takes part in the general celebrations and, being a traditionalist community, all respect the ceremonies and customs that go with them.

The Zeytun family is patriarchal; all the children of a family with their parents, wives and children all live under one roof. What does it matter if the house is small? On festival days they all gather round the hearth together, welcome guests with rich tables and know how to feast and drink, sing and dance.

New Year (Gaghant and Niu Dayi – Nor Dari)

The night of December 31st is very often snowy and cold, but all of the members of the family, gathered around the hearth, make merry. The women have already prepared special dishes for the day – vosbnatan (boiled cereals with onions etc), beet, bean garlic and sumach soup (dagabur), hapusa and dust-water (poshechur). They bring raisins, walnuts, dried fruits on strings (sudjukh, cevizli sucuk in Turkish), sweet sheets (basdegh, pestil in Turkish), mixed nuts (leblebu), oranges, pomegranates, quinces etc, and arrange them on a low table called sufri. Very often the grandfather or grandmother of the house tells fairy tales. Suddenly a bag appears in the hearth, let down the chimney. In Zeytun, just as in all Armenian regions, on New Year’s Eve the boys of 14-18 form small groups and, going from house to house, drop their bags down the chimneys, demanding their New Year’s presents (gaghantchek). The houses in Zeytun being built like steps, one’s roof is then next’s yard, so it is easy to communicate with those in the house via the chimney stack. Those in the house fill the bag with things from the table, sometimes adding 4 or 8 metalliks (1 metallik = 0.25 kurush or 10 paras). Every Armenian believes that by giving gifts (gaghantchek), his home’s good things will increase. The joy and celebration continue until midnight.

All the members of the household hurry to church in the morning to be present at the first Mass of the year. On their return, they begin to congratulate one another on the New Year. The oldest members of the family are seated, waiting for their children and grandchildren, who in turn, approach and congratulate them. They are blessed, as are the family’s chickens and animals. They then continue the congratulations for the New Year by visiting neighbours. [1]

There is a custom that on this occasion a special visit to the priest is made. The grandmother or grandfather of each house takes either a bowl of wheat, cracked wheat, cooked chickpeas (ipmon-dzedzadz), rice soup with olive oil (oruz abur) or fried breads, sometimes halva (halvo, hrushag) to the priest’s house, where they are received by his wife and are entertained with vosbnatan and dagabur. [2] Meanwhile the children gather together and enjoy themselves.

Zeytun photographed from the south west (Source: Hugo Grothe, Geographische Charakterbilder, Leipzig, 1909)

Holy Christmas (Dzeanunt, Surp Dzunt)

The time from December 29 until January 5 is a fasting period. On January 5th all the members of the household punctually attend church, to take part in the Mass and the Christ Child’s baptism (Blessing of the Waters). Each believer is blessed by drinking some of the water that has been blessed and, when they return home they take a little of it with them.

The fast ends by eating fried dry nuvig (wakerobin, a wild vergetable), recalling that Christ was born in a stable and the Holy Mother of God surrounded Him with that vegetable’s leaves. [3] Then they each drink three cups of their house oghi (raki) and feast on sacrificed meat and broth, rice-soup, fried eggs, yogurt curds, butter and honey. [4]

Presentation of Christ at the Temple (Derindeas, Dearnentarach)

After Christmas, wood, and sometimes whole trees, are brought from the mountains and left to dry. 40 days later, on February 13th, a large bundle of this wood is made up in the house yard. The women, unmarried girls, children and newly engaged or married couples go to church. After the service, the year’s newly-married couples are blessed, and they light a candle and present their gift to the church. Newborn infants and their mothers are also blessed, the mothers having been brought out of 40 day seclusion. When they return from church they take with them a candle lit from the lamps in the church, and use it to light the bundle of wood to make the bonfire in front of their houses. Then the members of the household, arm in arm, circle the bonfire, singing and dancing. When the bonfire has burned down and the flames have died down, they jump over them. [5]

St Sarkis

Just as in every Armenian region, so too in Zeytun, St Sarkis is considered to be the saint that defends the family. Every time a person from Zeytun is faced with some great difficulty, he approaches the saint, saying, ‘Oh, St Sarkis, you help’ (Aman, Surp Sarkis ton hasir). Naturally the festival dedicated to him is especially celebrated. It is a universal custom to fast on this occasion. Grown people fast for a week, while young girls maintain it for three days. The fast ends on Saturday night, when a sheep or goat is sacrificed, cooked and distributed among the poor. They go to the church, make confession and, receiving Communion, return home. Girls who are engaged to be married are given gifts and sweets by their fiancee’s relatives. [6]

St Sarkis and his son St Mardiros

St Sarkis and his son St Mardiros (Source: Gospel, 14- 15th century, Siunik, Ms 6305, f. 281 v, Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts - Matenadaran, Yerevan, in Tamara Mazaéva, Hratchia Tamrazyan (editors), La miniature arménienne, Ed. Naïri, Erevan, 2006)

The Vartan saints (Vartanank)

Mass is celebrated in the four churches of Zeytun on this occasion, after which there is a celebration held in the St Agiupo (Hagop) school and ‘Te hayreniats bsagatir’ (You wear the nation’s crown), ‘Himi el lrenk?’ (Shall we now be silent?) and ‘Im hayrenyats arev Vartan’ (The sun of my country, Vartan) are sung with great gusto by all present. It is presumed that this public way of celebrating the feast of the Vartan Saints with patriotic songs took place starting in 1908, after the proclamation of the Ottoman Constitution.

There is a custom to cook harisa in every house on this day in Zeytun, to sit as a family at the table and remember the Vartanants battle, always giving a part of the meal to the poor. Everywhere the theme is the Vartan saints; even the old people have a special way of approaching this meal, explaining that the word harisa comes from the corruption of the words har zsa (strike them) as General Vartan struck the enemy, so the harisa should be beaten. The day is often called hirisiun yore (harisa day). With the same aim target and rifle shooting and games with staffs are organised. [7]

Finally, with the most unusual ceremony, which is probably unique to Zeytun, at the end of the day, when dusk turns to night, pieces of wood that have been burnt and emit sparks are thrown into all the streets. The sight is marvellous, as if comets are landing. This ceremony is carried out to symbolise the fight against fire worship by Christians who scattered the fires of the pagan altars. [8]

‘The heroes of Avarayr’

‘The heroes of Avarayr’ (Source: ‘Keghuni’, illustrated Armenian journal, 1903, 2nd year, No 1-10, Venice)

Paregentan (Parigintonk)

Paregentan day is characterised by generous amounts of food, feasting, joy and games. It lasts for about a week, as on the following Monday Medz Bok (Medz Bahk – Lent) or, by another name Aghtsots Bok (bread and salt fast), begins.

Paregentan Wednesday is called Wolf Festival and, exceptionally, women do not do any work during the day. On all the other days they prepare various dishes. In all the houses, be they rich or poor, they prepare delicious dishes – various kinds of keoftes are a must – rice soup with olive oil (oruz abur), sweet pastes (hrushag) and sweets. There is also plenty to drink and rich tables.

Games are organized in the yards and on the roofs. It is the only day when, without distinction of sex or age, everyone joins the festivities. It is even permitted for the clergy to drink and join in. Theatrical games are performed in yards and in the streets. In all Armenian regions, on Paregentan Day, the ordinary people have the right to express their rebellion against the notables and hilarious village headmen, clergy and tyrants are presented. The idea of gods dying and coming to life again is also expressed. The three heroes of the Zeytun Paregentan presentations are urutsodz baba (fat grandfather); seyadj gakheoghe (the bread pan hanger) and the hors (bride, or newly married woman). The Armenian words used here are in the Zeytun dialect. The fat grandfather, his face covered in flour, and with a large, odd hat on his head, wearing an aba (a long coat made of sheepskin), his torso and stomach made to look swollen by wrapping pieces of clothing round him, presents an extraordinary figure. The seyadj gakheoghe (the bread pan hanger), his face covered in soot, with feathers on his head, with a sadj (a circular, almost flat metal dish on which bread is baked) in one hand, and a wooden ebledjek or evledjeg (a wooden shovel used in bread making) in the other, jumps cleverly about making a loud noise by beating the sadj. The hors is a boy disguised to look like a girl, in a Zeytun woman’s dress, his head covered with head coverings made of handkerchiefs and his face hidden with veils. They present wedding scenes and dances, stealing the bride from one another. In the process the seyadj gakheoghe kills the urutsodz baba and takes the bride as his. He calls the doctor to revive the fat grandfather; he does so and the game ends with seyadj gakheoghe’s victory.

Among other games it is worth recalling the hazar dakhdag (thousand pieces of wood) which even the old people take part in. Ten or fifteen men standing straight next to each other, each with his arms about the neck of the person next to him, dance a strong, rigid dance. Each of them in turn, starting at one end, disengages himself and climbs on the shoulders of the others, then walks to the other end and rejoins the group. Thus the wall of men crumbles at one and is rebuilt at the other. [9]

On Paregentan it is also the custom to visit the houses of engaged girls with gifts and dishes of food. General merrymaking, games and dances take place, giving the young people the chance to stealthily see and choose one another. [10]

Zeytun, 1913. Artin Agha Cholakian, playing the kanon

Zeytun, 1913. Artin Agha Cholakian, playing the santur. The colours in this photograph have been added by Houshamadyan (Source: Rev Mashtots Voskerichian, Zeytun – album, published by Donigian, Beirut, 1960)

Lent (aghtsots bok, medz bahk)

The people of Zeytun are very careful and exacting about Lent. Although they fast for seven weeks, some fast each day until midday, or even until evening, only drinking water and eating salt and bread, mixing dried ground pepper into the salt. This is the origin of the local name for Lent – aghhotsk or aghtsots (salt bread).

It is compulsory for everyone to take part in both the morning and evening services in church. The priest exhorts them to repeat the prayer ‘Lord Almighty’ to give them strength and cleanses them of their sins.

On the first Sunday in Lent, the feast of St Toros, every family prepares hadeg (hadig) soup, some as a salty meal, and others as a sweet. Spring is near; after spring sowing in the fields, vegetables and roots are collected which, with cereals, make up the main ingredients of Lenten meals. [11]

Palm Sunday (Beadghine, olive trees, Dzaghgazart)

Everyone hurries to church on Saturday night before Palm Sunday with young olive tree branches. The name of the festival has come from that. The people form a procession behind the priest and choir with candles decorated with olive twigs. The Mass ends at dawn.

On Maundy Thursday bitter dishes made with onions and garlic are prepared in memory of Christ’s Agony. The night is that of Darkness and Weeping; huge numbers of the faithful listen in church to the readings from the Bible and each person makes a knot in the string he is carrying at the reading of each Gospel; he ties the string to his wrist with the last knot. He believes that the person with this string with seven knots around his wrist will be protected from trembling sickness and the bites of scorpions and snakes. [12]

On the following day the women paint eggs. The eggs collected during Lent are boiled with madder roots, so that the eggs turn red; yellow using ground elder (dezdebaghug) and chestnut-coloured using onion skins. [13]

Some people keep to the fast for the final three days and only after receiving Communion break it by eating red eggs.

The Crucifixion. Klatsor Gospel, beginning of the 14th century

The Crucifixion. Klatsor Gospel, beginning of the 14th century (Source: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in Claude Mutafian (ed.), Arménie. La magie de l’écrit, Paris/Marseille, 2007)

Easter Day (Zadag, Zadig, Holy Resurrection Day)

Easter Saturday is Easter’s ‘Lighting of the Lamps’ day. Everyone – old and young, men and women –must go to church. Holy Mass is celebrated on Sunday morning. The Gospel of the Resurrection is read in three languages – classical Armenian, Zeytun Armenian dialect and Turkish before the recitation of the Creed. Siserian, in his book about Zeytun recalls that occasionally it was also read in French. He is probably referring to the time (1919-1920) when the French had established their rule in Cilicia. After the sermon the priest announces the monetary gifts made to the church on this occasion (Easter gifts) and the names of the donors.

After Mass egg cracking games take place in the streets and in the houses. There is joy in every house, everyone is in their newest clothes, the women and girls in red and green dresses and, if they can’t afford to get complete outfits, at least wear a new handkerchief, slippers or coat (entari) so that they might have a joyful Easter.
The next day, Monday, is Repose of the Souls day, and the people, after Mass, go to the cemetery together and collect around the great mulberry tree there. Everyone weeps, recalling the memory of their lost loved ones, and have the priest say a prayer over the tombs. They all eat together, partaking of a complete sheep, the stomach of which has been filled with cracked wheat, that has been previously cooked in an oven.

The following Sunday is repeat-Easter or, as the people say, Red Sunday. The next one is Green Sunday and the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God. After Mass on this day the people go into the fields and have an open-air feast and await the rain, pleading for even one drop to fall. The day’s rain is the sign of abundance, goodness and fruitfulness, like the Assumption of the Holy Virgin by the archangel Gabriel. The girls wet their hair in the rain, while the agricultural workers say that every drop of rain is oil and butter. [14]

In a street in Zeytun
In a street in Zeytun (Source: Hugo Grothe, Geographische Charakterbilder, Leipzig, 1909)

Ascension Day (Paghtecherag, luck water, drawing lots, Hampartsum)

On Wednesday evening the girls, each taking a pitcher, visit seven fountains and collect water from each. On Thursday morning they go to the fields and pick wild camomile and other flowers and fill their pitchers with them. Then the neighbouring women and girls each puts a personal item – scissors, a knife, a ring etc in the pitcher. When the time for drawing lots arrives, the women gather round the pitcher. They cover the head of the young girl sitting in front of it with handkerchief, so that she can’t see what they are or who they belong to as she draws the items out of the pitcher. When she takes one out, one of the women who can tell fortunes sings or recites a quatrain, thanks to which the item’s owner’s fate is foretold. [15]

Here are a few quatrains, which are often in Turkish:

Turkish versions

Ay Mentivar, Mentivar,
Mentivarın vakti var,
Mentivara gelenin,
Cennette bir tahtı var.

Ayna attım çayıra,
Şavkı (Şevki) düştü bayıra,
Eller ne derse desin,
İşim döndü hayıra.

The translation of the two above:

Oh, Lottery, Lottery,
There is a day for the Lottery
Whoever comes for the draw,
Has a place in heaven.

I put a mirror to the meadows,
The reflection hit the mountains,
Whoever wants something, let him speak,
My work has became good.

Other quatrains:

I planted sweet basil, a rose grew;
The nightingale came and sang gaily to it;
Don’t sing, my nightingale, don’t sing,
My love has gone as an emigrant.

I struck the chest, it opened
Coral and pearls poured out;
Good luck to her mother,
The girl has good luck.

The cherry tree branch is low,
There is a green carpet under it;
Oh Jesus, you Christ,
Show me the right way.
[16]

On the occasion of the feast of Pentecost (Hikkekealiuts, Hokekalusd), grandmothers have the custom of fasting. On the Monday after the Feast of the Transfiguration (Vartavar), the Repose of the Souls day, everyone, man or woman throws water at each other.

An Armenian woman in festival costume

An Armenian woman in festival costume. The colours in this photograph have been added by Houshamadyan, and may not correspond to those actually worn (Source: Hugo Grothe, Meine Vorderasienexpedition 1906 und 1907, Band II, 1912, Leipzig)

Feast of the Holy Mother of God

This festival is celebrated with greater solemnity than Easter in Zeytun. Families and great groups of pilgrims, especially from Marash and Ayntab, come to the monasteries of the Holy Mother of God and the Holy Redeemer in Zeytun where celebrations take place. Families from Zeytun also attend. Grapes are blessed, sacrificial animals are slaughtered and cooked (madagh) and singing and dancing, as well as competitions and games take place. [17]

Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Kheach, Khachverats)

On this festival day, there is a custom in Zeytun of decorating the cross with flowers for the Mass. Madagh or harisa is prepared and cooked in the homes.

Later the festivals of the Cross of Varak and St James are characterised by pilgrimages, preparation and cooking of madagh and feasting and drinking. [18]

Editor's note

Do you have any information about the festivals and celebrations held in Zeytun? Do you have additions or objections to the information contained in this article?

You can send your explanations or information to our address: houshamadyan(at)gmail.com

It is imperative that you give us your name, surname and the source of your information.

  • [1] Misak Siserian (M Ulnetsi), History of Zeytun (1409-1921), Lebanon, 1996, p. 199. (In Armenian)
  • [2] Smpad Piurad, ‘A mountaineer’s scrapbook’, in Pazmaveb, 93rd year, Venice 1935, p. 94. (In Armenian)
  • [3] Siserian, History of Zeytun…, p. 200.
  • [4] Piurad, 'A mountaineer’s scrapbook'… p. 93.
  • [5] Siserian, History of Zeytun…, p. 201.
  • [6] Ibid, p. 20.
  • [7] Ibid, p. 202.
  • [8] Zeytuntsi, From Zeytun’s past and present, Part 2, Paris, 1903, p. 125.
  • [9] Siserian, History of Zeytun…, p. 202.
  • [10] Piurad, 'A mountaineer’s scrapbook'… p. 205.
  • [11] Siserian, History of Zeytun…, p. 205.
  • [12] Piurad, 'A mountaineer’s scrapbook'… p. 246.
  • [13] Siserian, History of Zeytun…, p. 206.
  • [14] Ibid, p. 206.
  • [15] Ibid, p. 208.
  • [16] Ibid, pp. 208-209.
  • [17] Ibid, p. 210.
  • [18] Ibid, p. 21.