BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Valentine’s Day is around the corner and wherever we turn we see pink hearts, red hearts, roses, jewelry and the list goes on.
Let’s look into the legend behind February 14, the Sweethearts Day and learn how did the tradition of exchanging flowers and gifts between lovers come about.
Three hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ, the Roman Emperors still demanded that everyone should believe in the Roman gods and Christians were persecuted.
Valentine was a Christian priest who had been thrown in prison for his Christian teachings. On February 14, Valentine was beheaded, not only because he was a Christian, but also because he had performed a miracle.
He supposedly had cured the jailer’s daughter of her blindness. The night before he was executed, he wrote the jailer’s daughter a farewell letter, signing it “From Your Valentine.”
Interestingly we Armenians have our own patron of LOVE, and he is Sourp (Saint) Sarkis, who is the most popular saint for Armenians.
There are a few different versions of the Sourp Sarkis tale. I like the one which portrays St. Sarkis or “Sergius” as a Roman commander a miracle worker who had defected to Armenia. In one battle Sarkis with his 40 soldiers had defeated an enemy of 10,000. Please note that St. Sarkis just like St. Valentine was a miracle worker.
According to the legend, after the great feast to celebrate their victory, all forty soldiers and St Sarkis himself were tricked and intoxicated by a “Persian ruler” who then asked forty damsels to thrust sharp daggers into the hearts of sleeping young men and kill them. And we complain of violence in today’s movies!
Just one of the damsels, enchanted by the beauty of Sarkis, disobeys the order and instead of killing Sarkis, she kisses him. Sarkis awakens, and distraught by what he sees, he jumps on his white horse, not forgetting his savior (of course), and dashes away while a powerful storm rages outside…
Since then, a rider on a white horse has become the symbol of love in Armenian tradition. The holiday of Saint Sarkis doesn’t fall on a specific date, but is tied to the calendar in a similar fashion as Easter. (63 days before the Easter) It always falls on a Saturday, usually during the first week of February. It is believed that the night before of St. Sarkis holiday is the coldest night of the year. That superstition was certainly true in Tehran as I was growing up, but it doesn’t always come true in Southern California.
There’s an interesting tradition in Armenian culture connected to St. Sarkis day. On the evening before the holiday, unmarried girls and guys pray to the saint, asking for his help in their love affairs. Before they go to bed they eat a special salty pancake with no other food or drink, so that in their dreams they will see their destined lover or their future spouse giving them water.
My mother remembered about her experience of one St Sarkis night, when she had not yet met my father. On the Friday of Sourp Sarkis, after her aunt made her eat the salty pancake, she dreamed that she was at work. She was employed at the Iranian National Railroad as a draftswoman.
In those days in Iran, at work places, it was customary to have an attendant to serve tea to workers. Mom dreamed that she was very thirsty and she asked the man in charge of the teahouse to give her water.
The following morning her aunt asked her if she had had a dream. She answered that she had seen someone at work, giving her a glass of water. Little did my mother know that she would meet my father at the same office and they would get married.
At the age of 92, my mother still remembered the glass full of clear water that the tea server at work had given her in her dream.
My Sourp Sarkis dream came to me a few years before I met my husband. In my dream I was in a store and I was negotiating a young man who was the owner. When, the next morning, I shared my dream with my mom, she said maybe you’ll meet a young businessman and marry him. That’s what happened! I met an ambitious young man with his own advertising company in Tehran.
When I was raising my own family here in America (as we say “Odar aperoom” on foreign shores), I was somehow distracted by daily challenges and never told my kids about the tradition of Sourp Sarkis. So they never had any dream foretelling their future significant other.
In Armenia it is acceptable to celebrate the Feast of St. Sarkis not only according to church rites and prayers, but also according to various folk traditions. On the feast day of Saint Sarkis, the Warrior, a special liturgy is held in all churches named after him.
I was lucky to find a clip on the Internet showing a reenactment of the legend outside of the Sourp Sarkis church in Yerevan. At the end of the ceremony, which included dances and a play, a young guy dressed in costume as the Saint, rode on his white horse. The audience, parents and youngsters, that were outside of the church watching the play, were all bundled up in warm clothes from head to toe. This year the feast fell on January 27, (63 days before the Easter.)
Here I’d like to mention that there’s another Armenian custom associated with February 14. The name of the feast is Tiarn-daraj, which is one of the most beloved Armenian holidays—at least for me. It is a pagan tradition, which has entered into our liturgy. Tradition dictates to make a bonfire, go round and jump over it.
As I was growing up in Tehran, to celebrate Tiaren-daraj, after dark a bonfire was put at the church’s yard and we had a super pleasant time to jump over the flames. The tradition also dictated us to lit candles from the fire and take it home. That was an impossible task. But we had a lot of fun.
On the morning of the Feast Day (February 14), divine liturgies are offered at Armenian churches around the world, followed by the blessing of newly-weds.
Do you see that there must be a connection with Armenian Saint Sarkis feast, the Tiaren-daraj and the Valentine’s Day? Isn’t that strange that both Valentine’s Day and St. Sarkis fall in the dead of the winter? And why we have a feast on February 14, same day as Valentine’s Day, honoring newly weds? You be the judge…