Saturday, March 24, 2012

Get Me to the Church on Time

One of the big cultural events I was afraid I would miss out on here was going to a real wedding.  I specify a “real” wedding as I did attend a fake one last year.  [One of my fellow volunteers worked at an organization that started a “Culture Club” that has periodic events to showcase the customs of different nations.  The first event was about Armenia and they staged a wedding, with a Peace Corps volunteer as the bride and a European volunteer as the groom.  Since virtually all the people at the event were Armenian, one might ask why they needed an event to educate them about their own customs, but it was fun anyway (at least the parts I attended).]

This one didn't really count
You can always tell when there is a wedding going on in Armenia as cars speed through town honking their horns, so you hear it before you see it.  When the cars pass, you see someone with a video camera in the lead car, hanging out of a window or with his head through the sunroof, and you see an arm stuck out of a window holding a decorated sword (but more on that later). 

Weddings here happen every day of the week so the noise pollution rarely stops.  One (uncorroborated) story I heard to explain the horns relates to the Soviet period and the suppression of religion.  Since church bells could not be rung, the car horns became a substitute and the tradition stuck. 

Last year, I was told that weddings were generally not held during Lent as many people foreswear numerous things – no meat at all during the period, and you are supposed to abstain from various other things such as “carnal pleasures” - which would put a damper on the wedding business, I think.  While I did notice a reduction in wedding-related horn honking last year, there have been plenty in the main Gyumri church this year, so maybe things are loosening up.

Another difference from the US is that brides don’t buy their dresses – they rent them.  Early in my time here I started to notice a lot of shops that had both bridal dresses and flowers in the windows, which I now understand are one-stop bridal shops.

Luckily, a friend here overheard me say that I hadn’t been to a wedding and, coincidentally, his cousin was getting married two days later.  He invited me to go and I jumped at the chance.  When I accepted, he hastened to add “Bring your camera”, which made it even more interesting – I became the quasi-official wedding photographer. As a bonus, the wedding was in a village (really, in several, but I’ll get to that) where more of the traditions were held to than in the cities.

Things began at the groom’s house in Gharibjuryan, a village southwest of Gyumri.  We were told to be there by 10AM but, when we arrived, the groom was not there.  Unlike the way things are in the US, it is not unusual for the groom to help out the bride with last-minute arrangements on the morning of the wedding.  Also, he and others had been up late decorating the restaurant where the party would be later, so nobody seemed too surprised that he was late.  Plus, this is Armenia where everything is late. 

Waiting for the son
We hung around the wood burning stove with various relatives while other guys were outside decorating the cars.  There were also three musicians – one with an accordion, one with a drum and one with a clarinet.  Baskets had been prepared, filled with things for the wedding.  One held the bride’s shoes, veil and bouquet; another had chocolate and wine; another fruits and candies; yet another had wedding favors; and the last was filled with rose petals.  These would be carried from place to place throughout the day.  The table was set for a typical Armenian feast.

There are two men who perform the duties we would give to the “Best Man” – one who acts as godfather (and there is a corresponding godmother for the bride) and the “azapbashi”, who is sort of a bodyguard. The godparents are married (and I believe usually to each other and selected by the groom) while the azapbashi is unmarried.  Only the latter was present at first, as collecting the godfather is part of the process.

When the groom arrived, things started to roll.  His clothes had been laid out along with the baskets. The azapbashi helped him to get dressed and then the band started playing, and everyone started to dance.  The azapbashi carries a sword decorated with apples and ribbons, and this one had toothpicks jutting out of the apples – I suppose to prevent it being stolen.  As the bodyguard, the azapbashi must hold onto the sword and people try to steal it.  At some point, coins are added to the apples as a wish for good fortune.  
Everyone danced around the house for a while and then we all got in the cars waiting outside, the azapbashi carrying his sword and others carrying the baskets.  We were off to collect the godfather.

Now is the time in the wedding when we dance
The godfather lives in Azatan, another village southeast of Gyumri.  Because the road between the two villages was blocked from the winter’s mounds of snow, the procession drove into, through and out of Gyumri to get there.  When we got to the godfather’s house, everyone piled out of the cars, the band started again and everyone danced into the house.  The music stopped, toasts were offered (and some snacks were eaten since there was another table laid out) and then the crowd danced back outside with the godfather and back into the cars.  Then it was back to the groom’s house.

Leaving the godfather's house
When we arrived, everyone got out of the cars, the band was playing, and the crowd danced into the house again.  The music and dancing continues as the mother of the groom pinned a flower to the godfather’s jacket.  A bunch of people (mostly the men) sat at the table and started to eat the piles of food there and, of course, there shots of vodka, wine and brandy.   

Celebrating the pinning of the godfather (at center)....

...while others thought it wiser to eat.
Then, you guessed it – everyone danced back out to the cars.  This time, we were headed to the bride’s house. And by now, the crowd had gotten big enough that the procession included a rented marshutni.

An old tradition is to put a fox on the hood of the car that will get to the bride’s house first.  I haven’t gotten a good answer on what that is supposed to represent, although the old saying about “a fox in the henhouse” may be it.  Apparently, that tradition is not entirely lost as I saw one a few weeks ago.

The bride’s family lived in Keti, a village north of Gyumri and the procession headed there. When we arrived, the band started up again, the dancing resumed and everyone went into the house. By this point, we were running about two hours late and I was told that many a bride waits a long time, worrying if her groom is going to show. 

Into the bride's house
The basket with the bride’s shoes, veil and bouquet was brought to her bedroom, where she was surrounded by her female relatives and friends.  The bride’s brother put on her shoes, after carrying out the traditional “ransoming” of one of them.  He threatened not to put it on, thereby preventing the wedding, until the godfather gave him some money.  I have heard that in some places, all of the bride’s single female relatives and friends sign the bottom of the shoes (and the names get crossed off as they later get married).  I did not see that happen but it was kinda crowded….

Next, the veil was waved around the bride’s head three times while the godmother sang to her.  Similar to the signing of the shoes, sometimes the veil will also be waved above all the single ladies, but not that day. 

At some point, green and red ribbons were pinned to the groom’s shirt. Traditionally, the groom’s mother does this, with the red ribbon symbolizing health (pinned from the left shoulder down to the right) and the green ribbon symbolizes happiness (pinned from the right shoulder down to the left). Sometimes the bride’s mother is asked to assist with the ribbons “to add more motherly love as their children take one of the most important journeys of their life”.  Or something like that.

While all of this was going on, most of the men were in a separate room.  As with every other house visited in this process, there was a feast laid out with khorovats, meat, cheese, vegetables, juice, soda….and vodka, wine and brandy.  More toasts, more shots.   

The bridal party came into the room with the table o’ food and posed for pictures with the adorable kiddies who had been added to the bridal party.

Godmother, bride, groom, godfather, azapbashi and the kiddies
Once the pictures were done, the band started up again and the (even bigger) crowd danced its way out of the house to the vehicles, which by now included two marshutnis.  We got in the cars and headed into the center of Gyumri for the wedding itself.  After circling the main square (during which the marshutni I was in fishtailed during one of the turns, incidentally), we parked and everyone made their way into the church. 

The ceremony itself was shorter than I had witnessed in the US, but nonetheless interesting.  A priest read some prayers, blessed the rings and blessed the couple once the rings were exchanged.  They were brought up to the altar and crowns were placed on their heads, after which they stood with the crowns touching while the godfather held a cross at their heads.

A final blessing was accompanied by the bridal party eating the chocolate and drinking the wine that had been in one of the baskets.  After a receiving line and the taking of pictures on the altar, everyone moved outside where a pair of birds was given to the bride and groom. The birds – one representing love and the other happiness – were released and they flew off.  Or at least back to their owners down the block who rent them for these occasions. 

Then it was back into the cars and back to the groom’s house.  As we arrived the band and the dancing resumed.  Lavash (wrapped in plastic, like a sash) was placed over the shoulders of the bride and groom.  The mother of the groom had a pair of dishes prepared to welcome the newlyweds to the house (as the bride normally moves in with her in-laws).   

Get a load of these dishes
The plates were placed just inside the door and the couple stepped on them to smash them – warding off evil spirits.  And then it was more pictures and, of course, more toasts.  Then it was off to the reception.

Mazel tov!
The reception was at a restaurant in Bayandur, yet another village.  A dais was set up and tables throughout the room.  There did not seem to be seat assignments so people rushed to get the seats they wanted.  Naturally, there was food piled on all the tables – meats, cheese, greens, fruits, bread and lavash, vegetables and nuts.  And the usual assortment of mineral water, juice, soda, vodka, wine and brandy. 

When the newlyweds came in, they had their first dance and then took their place at the dais – from which they didn’t move much for a while.  At one point, the groom jumped up to dance and was dragged back to his bride by the godfather.  They did do a round of the tables at one point and did join in on one of the dances, but mostly they danced in their seats.

As more food was brought out during the party, I was surprised to see that, even though it was in a restaurant, some of the female guests were the ones bringing out the food (and maybe cooking it also).  

The presentation of the khorovats

oh shit
The same musicians from earlier in the day were also playing at the party, most of it traditional Armenian songs. During their breaks, pop music from Russia and elsewhere filled in.

From then on, it was a blur of dancing, toasts and eating.  I was cajoled into all three, but in moderation.  

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay to the end as I needed to take a taxi home and I was told I wouldn’t get one past 10:00 (the party, I am told, ended about 2:00).  As I was leaving, they were just cutting the cake and I missed the throwing of the bouquet and garter (not Armenian traditions, but seeping in from the West). And, undoubtedly, there was a lot more dancing.

Another thing that I missed was the morning after.  As I have written before, a bride is expected to be a virgin on her wedding day. Traditionally, the family of the groom brings red apples to the family of the bride the day after the wedding as a way of reporting that, how shall we say…evidence was present in the bridal chamber.    

Anyone who has read my previous post would not be surprised that, as I am told, the couple met two weeks before the wedding.  But at least the song for the first dance wasn’t this.

Given my unofficial role at the wedding, I have way more pictures in this album.

Now if I can only get invited to an Army Party…..