PICO RIVERA, Calif.,—As an ancient nation with a continuous existence of thousands of years, Armenians have deep-rooted customs and traditions. Every region of the Armenian homeland has had its own unique set of cuisines, beliefs, costumes, dialects, songs, dances, as well as behavioral and physical characteristics. During the Armenian Genocide, massacres and displacement destroyed not only human lives, but also much of the rich variety that formed aggregate Armenian culture.
When Armenians meet each other for the first time, one of the first questions is usually “Oordeghen es? Sassountzee? Mshetzee? Gharabaghtzee? Vanetzee?” – single words of belonging used to identify origin-places on a map, yet also snippets encapsulating individual parts of an entire nation’s collective cultural identity.
As a result, of the Hamidian massacres and genocide, large Armenian communities formed in the United States in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. Often, until World War II, such communities were composed of by people originating from the same village or town in the Western Armenian homeland. With the exception of Fresno, this phenomenon seems to be limited to the east coast. The west coast community, namely the Los Angeles area, is much more blended and homogenized.
Many find rediscovering some of the distinctive regional, sub-cultural features a joyous experience.
Unique beliefs and superstitions developed in Sassoun about the significance of certain animals. A dog’s mournful gaze or monotone whining meant that a house would soon be stricken by tragedy or death. Sassountzees believed that the spirit which strangled infants was kept at bay by dogs. Consequently, if newborns died in infancy, parents would name the next child after a dog.
Meanwhile, cats were considered to be Christ’s tasdmalns (“purifiers”). Therefore, killing a cat was considered a major sin, which could only be absolved if the sinner slaughtered an animal outside of a church. People feared following cats at night, believing they led people to their graves, where they would transform into skeletons and strangle their unsuspecting victims. A cat walking out of the house and eating grass outside foretold a drought and bad harvest.
In Ourfa, the game of Top Degenegi was played centuries before the origins of baseball. A thick bat and a ball were needed, the latter usually made using bits of rag tied together with colorful string. Two teams formed and stood at a distance from each other. As in baseball, one team pitched, the other batted. A batter had to hit the ball back in the direction of the pitching team, which tried to catch the ball before it hit the ground.
A grandmother from Yozgat might have mentioned the festivals and ceremonies given great importance, celebrated with great splendor, and having unique characteristics that differed by specific location. Agamor (New Year / Gaghant) was a pre-Christian festival, and a superstition-turned-tradition. It held that the rest of the year would continue based on how this particular day started off. For this reason, Yozgatsis tried to spend the day in joy and abundance.
They made numerous pastries in the shape of tools used to carry out the work of the village economy, among them the khop (ploughshare) and madj (plough handle). Made with unleavened flour, dough without salt and oil was made into round or crescent-shaped, bread-like cakes. The woman making these pastries would secretly place, without fail, a coin in one of them. On New Year’s Day, the person finding the coin was considered lucky. Yozgattzees called these pastries bak-has (fasting bread) instead of oodik-has (bread eaten on ordinary days).
Are you looking for a way you can get more in touch with these vibrant cultural aspects of our ancestral Armenian heritage? Come to the Armenian Genealogy Conference to learn how to trace your family tree in order to gain more insight into your lineage! It’s being held on the west coast for the first time, on November 15 at Armenian Mesrobian School. Learn the tips and tricks to finding previously unknown information about your family tree, the ins and outs of DNA testing to locate living relatives, the various resources available, and more!
The conference is being organized by the Western Armenia Committee and scheduled for November 15 and 16 in Montebello, CA hosted by Armenian Mesrobian School. Details and registration can be found online. ARF Dro Gomideh of Montebello, Hamazkayin, Houshamadyan.org, NAASR, and Project Save are co-sponsors of the conference.
The Western Armenia Committee is dedicated to the reestablishment of Armenians’ connection with their ancestral homeland through cultural, educational, and observational opportunities.