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Articles

Barekentan Festivities: Living “the good life”

By Shakeh Major Tchilingirian


Grapevine, Summer 2021 (pp. 2-3). 

 

In folk culture, Armenians considered Boon Barekentan «տրաքելու օր», “the day to explode” eating, drinking, dancing and partying hard. It is on Sunday, the day before the start of Great Lent, the beginning of forty days of fasting for self-reflection and spiritual purification.   

 

Barekentan festivities are rooted in ancient pagan rituals.  The start of a new year (Amanor), Navasard and Barekentan were celebrated to mark the sun’s annual journey. Each feast symbolically marked the battle “to save the Cosmos from Chaos”. Barekentan was the victory of Spring over Winter. In anticipation of the vernal equinox, it symbolised the awakening of nature and the arrival of Spring, new life.(1)


Barekentan, literally meaning “good living” (bari gyank), involves series of festivities, which traditionally last for a week or more, before the start of Great Lent. In the Armenian Christian tradition, Barekentan exemplifies “the felicity of the paradise and the good life,” writes Patriarch Malachia Ormanian. The Great (Boon) Barekentan symbolises “the joyful life of the forebearers of the human race.”(2) Indeed, the liturgical service and hymns in the church on that day juxtapose Adam, “the old man” with Christ, the Saviour, “the new man”, the hope and salvation of humanity.

 

The festive period concludes on the Sunday before the start of Great Lent, seven weeks before the major feast of the Church, Easter or Holy Resurrection (Սուրբ  Յարութիւն).

 

The festivities typically involved large gatherings and celebrations, with festive meals, singing, dancing and entertainment. Oxen, lambs and roosters were slaughtered in preparation for the festivities. Wine and spirits (oghi) were served abundantly. Popular games for children, young girls, newlywed brides, young men, athletes and horsemen were the highlight of the period. Interestingly, the ancient rites of spring did not have fortune-telling rituals as a part of the activities. Ethnographers suggest this is because the change of season at the vernal equinox was not considered threatening -- the days were longer and the return of spring was assured.

 

Invited well-known minstrels and storytellers kept the crowds entertained. The week-long festivities, which paused only during work hours and resumed when the day’s work was completed, intensified as the week progressed, culminating on Boon Barekentan

 

Like Mardi Gras and Shrovetide in the Western tradition, during this period families and communities organised banquets, merriment and paid visits to each other’s homes. Even the monks had a break during Barekentan. “Monasteries relaxed their discipline,” writes Ormanian, “giving rise to the term apeghatogh (friar’s holiday).”(3)  Indeed, as in its European counterpart, the Carnival, “everyday life values were inverted at Barekentan, monks behaved in secular ways, and the highest, most socially prestigious people exchanged places with the lowest in the midst of much buffoonery.”(4) Ethno-choreologist Srbuhi Lisitsyan adds that on apeghatogh days, people in masqueradewere allowed to dance in the courtyards of the monasteries without any hindrance.(5) The dancing in the evenings during this period was typically a combination of community circle dances (hasarakatz barer), solo dances (menabarer), dancing in pairs (zougaparer), and nstmantz barer (seated dances). The Zurna player would typically determine and lead the type, the order, the length and the speed of the dances and everyone would have to follow this order.

 

On the eve of the final day, as everyone by then was exhausted and satiated with food and drink, the elder of the house, followed by the other members of the family, ate an egg symbolically “sealing” his mouth until Easter. They said to each other: «բերաններս փակումենք սպիտակ ձվով, Աստված արժանացնի կարմիր ձվով բաց անելու», "We are sealing our mouths with a white egg; may God make us worthy to open our mouths with a red egg.” The red egg symbolises new life at Easter.

  

Notes 


1. Hripsime Pikichian, “Festival and Feast” in Levon Abrahamian and Nancy Sweezy (eds.), Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 220.

2. Malachia Ormanian, A Dictionary of the Armenian Church. Trans. Bedros Norehad. New York: St. Vartan Press, 1984, p. 26.

3. Ibid.

4. Pikichian, “Festival and Feast,” p. 224. 

5.Սրբուհի Լիսիցյան, Հայ ժողովրդի հինավուրց պարերը և թատերական ներկայացումները (թարգմանություն ռուսերենից. համակարգող և խմբագիր՝ Կարեն Գևորգյան), 1-ին հատոր, Երևան, 2013, էջ 48.