Marriage in Armenia
Traditional marriage in Armenia differs somewhat from lhat in many other European countries and in North America. Tourists are almost bound to see weddings unless visiting during either Lent, when weddings cannot be held in church, or during May, Armenians having adopted the old Russian custom of considering that weddings in May will lead to an unhappy marriage. Weddings are particularly common on Saturdays, and readers might be interested to know more about what is happening.
The first point to note is that fewer young people than formerly are getting married, but not because they are simply living together as in many Western countries. In general Armenian couples do not do this. Young Armenian couples marry and then expect to have their first child a year or so after the wedding and the wife will stay at home to look after it. A young Armenian man will often not make a proposal of marriage unless he feels confident that he will be able to support his wife and child. In the uncertain economic climate (after decades of Soviet predictability) many young men felt unsure that they would be able to support a family and hence stayed single. Armenia's marriage rate fell by 50% after the Soviet collapse. However, 2007 and 2008 saw small increases in the number of marriages, and also in the birth rate, perhaps reflecting the improved economic situation. The problem of housing also arises. Economic uncertainty means that young people are reluctant to borrow money to buy a house or flat and the alternative of living with the husbands parents may or may not be feasible. Rising house prices also have to be taken into account.
A second point to note is that Armenians tend to have quite small families. A couple will generally only have further children if they believe that they can support them. This is similar to the view of many Western couples but economic uncertainty, or at least the perception of it, is greater in Armenia than in the West and this impacts on family size.
As traditionally happened in the West, if a man wishes to marry a woman he will go to her father to ask for her hand in marriage. A difference in Armenia is that he will usually be accompanied by his parents and possibly by other very close relatives such as his brother or sister. Unlike the West, wedding ceremonies are not planned long in advance: rarely more than a month ahead and sometimes only a few days, although this is changing as churches and reception venues become busier; it can now be as long as two or three months. On the wedding day the bride will be helped to get ready by her maid of honour (the equivalent of chief bridesmaid): this is always one of her unmarried sisters if she has any and only a close friend if she has no unmarried sister. It is never a married woman: the concept of a matron of honour doesn't exist in Armenia. The bridegroom's family provides and pays for the brides dress, the bridegroom and the brother of the cross (the equivalent of best man) bringing it to her family's house on the day of the wedding. The bridegroom will normally also be accompanied by members of his family and friends (though not by his mother) and they, together with the brides relatives and friends, eat and drink at the house while the bride is putting on her dress and being helped to get ready. Traditionally the bride would have worn a gown of red silk with a headpiece, often made of cardboard, shaped into wings and decorated with feathers. Nowadays she usually wears a long white dress similar in style to those worn throughout the West and probably imported from France, the Netherlands, Russia or the US. The bridegroom often wears a suit, though in a rather more interesting colour than one bought for sober office wear. Relatives and friends, including the maid of honour, tend to dress much as in the West although pale suits for all the prominent younger men are common.
Eventually the bride and bridegroom set off for the church together (no bridegroom waiting for the bride at the altar!) accompanied by their relatives and friends. Traditionally the bride's mother stays at home and does not attend her daughter's wedding: for her to do so is considered to bring bad luck upon the couple. However, this tradition is changing and nowadays the bride's mother often does attend the wedding. The bridegroom's mother has always attended. The couple may have either a church service, a civil ceremony or both. If they opt to have a church service but no civil ceremony their marriage is valid in the eyes of God although it is not recognised in Armenian law and the couple are, in theory at least, both free to remarry. Nevertheless many couples do in fact have only a church service: the subsequent rate of separation is in practice low. The wedding party enters the church with a large decorated basket containing wedding favours to be distributed to the guests: in the past these might have been small ceramic containers with almonds in them but many modern brides choose something much less traditional and there is a demand for such exotica as glass containers decorated with sea shells. During the service the officiating priest puts a ring on the finger of the bridegroom and then of the bride before joining their hands. The bridegroom then makes his vows followed in turn by the bride.
After the ceremony, all present, though still without the bride's mother (if she has stayed at home), traditionally go to the bridegroom's family house for the reception although nowadays a room in a hotel or restaurant is sometimes hired for the occasion. En route there is likely to be a motorcade with blaring horns and in Yerevan driving three times round Republic Square is an essential and audible part of the proceedings. On arrival at the reception the groomsmen and bridesmaids, holding their flowers aloft, form arches through which the young couple walk and two white doves are traditionally released to symbolise their love and happiness. There is more eating and drinking, this time at the expense of the bridegroom's family (although this too is changing with costs being shared), accompanied by dancing in an amalgam of traditional Armenian and more modern styles. The food will almost certainly be the menu invariably eaten on all Armenian celebratory occasions: khorovats - barbecued meat, most commonly pork but sometimes lamb or chicken, accompanied by salads and vegetables together with lavash. There will be the inevitable toasts. Friends, neighbours, and indeed almost anyone passing, drop in to wish the newlyweds well. The party goes on until everyone has had enough.
That isn't quite the end of marriage customs. Trndaz (Purification) day, 13 February, commemorates the purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of Jesus, as laid down in the rules given in Leviticus, chapter 12. After a church service during the evening, the priest blesses a fire. Candles lit in this fire are then taken to the homes of couples who have been married in the previous year and also to the homes of young women who have become engaged. A fire is kindled at the house using the candles lit from the fire at the church which the priest blessed. Then the couples jump over it to get rid of the small devils hanging from the edge of their clothes. The ceremony is the pretext for a large family celebration.
In some years Trndaz coincides with St Sargis's Day whose date is variable and fixed by the Church calendar. As with so many Armenian customs the actual details vary from family to family but traditionally young people fast on the eve of St Sargis's Day. They then eat unleavened salt bread which has been baked either by their grandmother or by a happily married middle-aged woman, and retire to bed without either drinking or speaking. Their inevitable thirst will supposedly make them dream of the person whom they will marry. If a footprint appears in the bowl of flour left outside the house overnight then the young man of the house will marry in the coming year. On St Sargis's Day itself there is a service of blessing for young people at the church.
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