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Friday, 16 November 2012

Celebrating the feast of Blessing of the Grapes in Armenia

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 summer, 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 yoga retreat pictured from outside

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!

interior of the Yoga retreat
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 that.  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 smaller 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 Dram, about $30, to take us up to the church and back to Yerevan.  It was totally worth it.  

One of the many cars we saw with their hoods up

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