Christmas time for an Armenian family tends to be one of the biggest events of the year, with non-stop cooking and eating, your 100-plus “family” members visiting and pinching your cheeks endlessly, and of course the countless “genats” [կենաց] (toasts). Being one of the few kids who didn’t have to go to school on January 6 was also an added perk!
When I decided to extend my initial three-month stay in Armenia, my host-family told me it was great timing since I would, in a month, experience the local Armenian celebrations of both New Year’s and Christmas. They explained to me how it usually lasted from Dec. 31 to Jan. 11 or so, until the “Old New Year.” After hearing their descriptions of what usually happens on each day, I realized local Armenian traditions were similar to the ones back home—but on steroids. Some families would even go into debt as a result of the cost of celebrations. I told them that during this time, more than ever, not to treat me like a guest, but as a participant who would try to blend in and be an active member as much as possible. My host-sister agreed with a smile that made me a little nervous.
“Bood” [պուտ] is the centerpiece in Armenia. It is literally the large thigh/leg of a cow, and the cooking process includes the initial shaving of the leg to make sure no hairs remain (or at least in my host-family it did). While my host-sister described it, she reassured me that I would not be needed in the shaving/cooking of this dish, and said it was the most delicious and popular thing on the table.
Next, she described the “khash jelly.” I had heard about khash [խաշ]; for those who do not know, it is a soup of fat, boiled overnight from the hooves of cows, which you eat with garlic, lavash [լաւաշ], and more vodka than you can imagine (for digestion purposes). The history of khash? When laborers prepared the king’s food, they’d choose not to discard the cow’s feet and instead make a soup with it to sustain themselves during the long, arduous process. The fat and thickness of the soup would keep them full for hours after, which was exactly what they needed. In modern-day Armenia, people still consume khash as a tradition during the winter—and become immobile for hours later. Khash jelly is the broth of this soup, mixed with spices, shaped into a log, and put into the freezer. It is sliced and eaten cold with lavash. Meat jello, in short.
My role would be to help make the various salads and desserts that would surround the table. This way, I would also know which ones were vegetarian and which were off limits. Many salads had a Russian-influence to them, and were lathered in mayonnaise as a dressing or had small cubes of chicken in them. I counted three delicious-looking salads/side dishes I could eat, and agreed with my host-sister that although it was not on the traditional menu, we would include some basook dolma [պասուք տոլմա] for me as well as some hummus. I was content.
In the days that followed, beginning as soon as Dec. 26, I regretted my “I want to be a participant” speech more times than I could count. Being a participant in preparing for the holiday season in Armenia meant that was all I could do. I had no life outside of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and planning. The “power” breaks would include coffee and cigarette sessions, but since I didn’t partake in either, I had no way of distracting myself from the work that followed these sessions.
I escaped a couple of times to meet friends who lived alone or with roommates, and within 30 minutes the phone calls would begin: I was needed. I had to bring something, make something, or clean something. A couple of times I would wake up “early” with the intention of going for secret runs prior to the chaos, but would instead see my host-family busy working—and happy that I was finally awake and could join them. Amazed at their energy, and bitter at being caught, I would.
New Year’s was by far the busiest day of the almost two-week-long celebration, with food-covered tables, music playing, people dancing, vodka pouring, and toasts coming one after the other well into the wee hours of the morning. My host-sister’s bood was a hit, and it seemed that her grandmother sat beside me to specifically chastise me for not eating the meat (out of love, I assume). The process began: Eat, toast, drink, dance, welcome more guests and repeat. By 4 a.m., everyone was so full of food and alcohol, things officially began to settle down.
There’s a reason no one returns to work feeling rested or energized: Mini-versions of the New Year’s celebrations continue during the days that follow. My co-workers and I arrived to work on Jan. 11 looking haggard, with dark circles under our eyes and pants that had suddenly become far too tight.
Smaller and more spread-out versions continued during those first few days in January. Groups of guests would come, a few at a time, and leftovers would constantly go back and forth into the fridge. I was able to leave the house more often, but without fail, every time I returned, there were new family members or friends I had never seen before making toasts and getting ready to eat. Their departure was immediately followed by cleaning, to make sure there was enough cutlery and plates for the next round of guests. I could not believe this would continue multiple times every day, and wondered if the bood was really big enough (it was).
The following year, living with two spyurkahays [սփիւռքահայ] (diasporans) and two odars [օտար], we decided to organize a big dinner at our house to mimic the ones we had experienced living with host-families. A few days before the planned dinner, we had to cancel, and instead made a large reservation at a restaurant. Although we had more time to prepare and had many helping hands, we could not pull off feeding 20 people; with work and other obligations, we could not find the time to actually focus on preparation. It made me really appreciate and understand even more so how hard my host-family had worked. No matter how busy they were, they still created enough food for so many guests for almost two weeks. So we ate at a Western Armenian restaurant and followed that with a night out dancing, and were home by 2 a.m., without a single worry about cleaning or getting up early to cook.
The following day, after some friends had come over to spend a lazy day inside, a neighbor who we barely knew knocked on our door and gave us containers upon containers of food that she had made for her own celebrations. There was meat, cheese, pastries, desserts, and fruits. She said she knew our mothers were so far away, and wanted to make sure we were well fed and had some real food during the holidays. Two of our local friends came over shortly after with both basook dolma and cake. Even within our 100 percent spyurk-bubble way of celebrating, we still got a glimpse of the local Armenian traditions. Those acts alone—seeing how generous and considerate people could be even in the middle of the busiest season—were the best parts of our New Year’s.
While I arrived to work that year feeling rested, energetic, and with pants that fit just fine, I knew something important had been missing in our “safe” option. While local Armenian traditions seemed a little extreme for me, and the idea of going into debt absurd, the tradition is surrounded by the idea of generously feeding those you love—albeit sometimes forcefully. No restaurant experience can even come close to that.