BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Last Sunday as I drove past Verdugo Park in Glendale, I noticed a big crowd picnicking under the shades of the trees. Instantly it occurred to me that they were there celebrating the feast of “Vardavar.” The day before, when I had talked to my daughter who is in Yerevan, she had casually mentioned that Sunday is “Vardavar” and that they were told to stay inside if they didn’t want to get wet, because the youth get rowdy and throw buckets of water to each other in the streets.
I made a quick U-turn and headed to find a parking spot, so I could meet the people who were at the park. My guess was right; the group was picnicking to celebrate the feast of “Vardavar.” This was one of the fun Armenian traditions that we used to celebrate in Iran when I was young. It seems the tradition got distorted when we came to America, or at least our kids didn’t celebrate it as we did.
Vardavar (holiday of water) traces its roots to pagan times. In Tehran, Vardavar was a good excuse for the Armenian boys in our neighborhood to become mischievous. I remember all too often becoming a victim when an unruly young boy threw water onto me. Many mornings during Vardavar my dreams were cut short when I felt a slap of water on my face from one of my younger brothers. Those were the days!
Ourmya Armenian Society had organized the picnic. Ourmya, formerly known as Rezayieh, is one of the main cities in northwestern Iran in the province of Azerbaijan. Urumia (as it is spelled on the Internet) is known for its fertile agricultural soil, and for best kind of fruit, especially apples and grapes.
I visited the city during the Shah’s regime just once; it was during the feast of St. Mary when they bless the grapes. For the festivities of St. Mary’s day we were ushered to a nearby Armenian village (Gard-abad) where we witnessed the best group dances with the sound of dohol/zourna. We were offered grapes and “madagh” as our meal.
At one point, in Urumia 40% of the population was Christian which consisted mainly of Armenians and Assyrians. Both ethnic groups have been a big part of Urumia’s history and the engines of the economy. But since the Islamic Revolution, the Armenian population has dwindled down to less than 4000 people, and that number includes those living in the surrounding villages.
Adjacent to Urumia is a salt water lake which was a great attraction when we visited there in 1964. Because of the lakes; unusually high salt concentration, you could float in the water even if you didn’t know how to swim. But God forbid if a drop of water hit your eyes.
At Verdugo Park, I met Ardavazd, Boulik, Babayan, the head of the Society that was created in 1987. Ourmya Armenian Society is a nonprofit organization; one of its main activities is giving out scholarships to deserving Armenian high school students. This year was their 22nd annual Vardavar celebration at the park. The Organizers of the picnic arrive at 6:30 in the morning to reserve spots. Every family brings their own folding tables and chairs, and the society provides kebab, rice and barbecued vegetables for $12.
When I arrived, it was already past 6 p.m. The games were over and the kebab was gone. Plenty of people were still sitting around the tables enjoying the early evening, having tea, talking or playing lotto. Ardavazd said that if I had been there earlier I could have seen the kids fighting each other with water-guns, and even their parents throwing water to each other. There were close to 150 people there.
Sunday, August 14, the society is organizing another Verdugo Park picnic. this time to celebrate St. Mary’s feast, and is expecting a big crowd of around 600 people. Armenians have kept the tradition of sacrificing animals (madagh) a remnant of an ancient ritual. On that day they will offer free meals (madagh) as the tradition dictates. In 2008, on the day of St. Mary’s feast, I was in the city of Niece 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.
Although we outside of Armenia don’t celebrate Vardavar as vigorously as they do in Armenia, I am glad that they are groups like Ourmya Armenian Society that are keeping our traditions alive and passing them on to the next generation.
Catherine Yesayan is a contributor to Asbarez. You may reach her at email@example.com or read her stories on her blog.