This past weekend I was lucky enough to go to an engagement party for my host-sister’s best friend. A few months ago, her and her boyfriend decided that they wanted to get married, so they set a date to get engaged. I was confused. In the States, we don’t typically “set a date” to get engaged. You either become engaged to be married when someone asks you, or you don’t. There’s not often an in-between state of engage-ness. At first, I thought that I had just misunderstood. That they had maybe talked about getting married at some distant point in the future, or that my host-sister’s friend was expecting to be asked by her boyfriend any day now. But, no. A few months ago they decided to formally get engaged on March 10th. So, to celebrate this engagement and the many cultural differences that make studying another’s way of life so appealing and rewarding, I decided to focus this article on all things wedding. Well, all things traditional Armenian wedding, to be precise.
For most Armenians weddings are oftentimes very formal, joyous occasions chock-full of long-standing traditions staunchly, or in some cases grudgingly, upheld. One such tradition is the “Khosk-kap.” This slightly formal event officially kicks off the engagement and is similar to what we in the States would call an engagement reception or party. Traditionally, this is when the groom’s parents would officially meet the bride’s parents and ask them for their daughter’s hand in marriage. If all goes according to plan, which it should considering that this is essentially a pre-arranged engagement, the groom-to-be will then present the engagement ring to his new fiancé and the eating, drinking, and typical Armenian revelry will commence. A priest is also usually present to bless the ring and the couple’s future plans to marry. This is the engagement that my host-sister was referring to.
Some other interesting customs present during many Armenian weddings revolve around the “azapbashi,” close to what we might refer to as the best man, and the “kavor,” or godfather. In Armenian culture the “kavor” is arguably the most important figure in the wedding, except for maybe the bride and groom of course. He is typically a close friend of the family chosen to be the couple’s sponsor and responsible for much of the wedding details and for guiding the couple in their new life as man and wife. He is also one of the first, if not the first, to be toasted at the reception following the church ceremony.
Armenian weddings are also known for their festive, exuberant quality. Before the wedding, the groom’s party, headed by the “kavor” and his accompanying musicians, sing and dance their way to the bride’s house with “sinis,” traditional gift-wrapped baskets full of various goodies for the bride. Traditionally, the “sini” would carry everything that the bride would need for her big day: shoes, veil, perfume, make-up, brandy, chocolate, and even flowers. After the gift baskets are handed over, the men proceed to drink and make merry while the women help the bride get ready for her big day. Sometime around this time candy is thrown at the women helping the bride and one of the bride’s shoes is stolen and must be paid for by someone from the groom’s party, usually the “kavor.” When the bride is ready, she meets her future husband and they all eat, drink, and toast to the happy couple. Before leaving the bride’s house for the ceremony, one of her younger male relatives blocks the door with a sword until he is given a coin by the groom’s side. Then everyone lines up into a large, rather raucous caravan led by a limousine decked out in flowers and banners, or maybe even a dead animal if in the village.
After the church ceremony, if there is one, the wedding party heads over to the groom’s house where, traditionally, his mother is there to greet the newly wed couple. Interestingly enough, the mothers of both the bride and groom are not supposed to participate in the wedding ceremony itself. Customarily, the mother of the bride is to stay home mourning the loss of her daughter, while the groom’s mother is to stay home preparing to welcome her new daughter. Of course, this old practice is not strictly adhered to nowadays. However, the groom’s mother does normally greet the newly married couple by draping lavash on the shoulder of both the bride and groom. This probably comes from an ancient story about Astghik, the Armenian goddess of love, when she was to marry Vahagn, the Armenian god of warriors. Aramazd, the god of all gods, placed a piece of lavash on her shoulder. But when she dropped it in her excitement to get to her groom’s home, the wedding was cancelled; for according to Aramazd, whoever drops bread on the floor cannot be a wife and mother. Hmmm…
Anyways, as the new couple enters the house of the groom’s parents, they each break a plate that had been placed in the threshold by the groom’s mother. Once the plates are broken, they are permitted to enter the house and the feasting may begin. Typically, these affairs last all night. In the villages it is very common for neighbors to greet the new couple by setting up small tables filled with food, drinks, and gifts in front of the groom’s house. However, this is typically not done in Yerevan. By the way, the traditional wedding gift is jewelry, preferably gold, for the bride. This differs from the customary crystal and silverware given in the States, although Armenians are beginning to do this more recently.
There are more traditions dealing with stolen chickens, doves, bulls, and even apples—some more pleasant than others. But all in all, Armenians like to have fun, eat, drink, dance, and celebrate life to its fullest. What better venue for that than an Armenian wedding where families and friends gather to celebrate the exciting new life of one of their loved ones by honoring the traditions of the past?
Amy Nicole Stidger is studying Armenian in Yerevan, Armenia.