Sunday, March 23, 2008

Scarborough Sunday: Easter Armo Style

Built like a Greek Theatre, our church (which stands in Scarborough and will probably the only remotely Scarberian aspect of this post) features a two-floor semi-circle, which opens up to face the altar. Armenian church is a lot like theatre, with beautiful operatic songs, priestly chants and monologues, and gold embroidered costumes. The congregation is equally theatrical. Dressed to the nines, ready to cry, to sing, to be saved, but also ready to judge. The biggest show of the year is undoubtedly Easter Sunday.

As I child, when the congregation was a fraction of what it is today, I looked forward to church service at Easter. Easter is the main event of the Christian faith, the thing that separates us from the rest of the monotheistic religions. It's a celebration. Christ gave his life for us. We get to live because he saved us. It's a nice thought, and one that I used to believe with a fervour I sometimes miss. Asking too many questions will ruin it, my mother used to caution the inquisitive me. Just believe and all will be fine. But I was never good at taking her advise.

Anyway, there are five parts to Armenian Church that I loved as a child.

Lighting a candle and praying when you walk in. There is something about those long skinny white candles that I have always found to be restorative. As a child, I would zone out on their warm glow, watching the wax melt and drip onto the sand in the candle box. I would try to block out the people around me and reflect on my loved ones, things I was thankful for and good things I wanted to happen. (Getting a job, or getting a boy I liked to like me back.) I still love staring at the very Orthodox painting over the shrine. I still love thinking my wishes will come true. It's like throwing a coin into a fountain I suppose. With better lighting.

The smell of incense. I remember sitting in the pews with my parents, feeling a combination of sleepy and bored. The incense dispenser (?) is brass and hangs on a long chain. It makes a gorgeous chainy clang as the deacon swings it methodically and sings his part of the corresponding chant. I would watch the smoke from the incense waft in the air in perfect curly-queues as the deacon made his way up and down the aisles. I was convinced that the smoke was a potion that made children sleepy. Little Nadine would try desperately to concentrate on something else while she held her breath to avoid the sleep-inducing smoke.

Now I can't get enough of it. I breathe it in deeply and hope that it cleanses every cell, every molecule, every DNA strand.

The song Der Voghormia. This gorgeous hymn is sung as you beg God's forgiveness. I remember bugging my mom to leave the mass so I could run around with my friends outside. She would always insist on staying for this song. I would see giant tears roll down, lips pursed, her face turning purple, hands clasped so tightly in prayer that her knuckles were white. "Why are you crying mom?" I hated seeing my mother cry. It frightened me. If she was so sad, what hope did I have? "I'm thinking of my mom and dad," she would burble. I now know that song means so much more. It is the song that unleashes The Sadness. I'm sure, many years from now, I will go to church seeking out that song so that I can think of my mother and cry.

Mas. As you leave the mass, you're haded a small plastic baggie with holy bread in it. There is a better explanation of mas, and the whole service, on Armeniapedia (the Armo Wiki!) here. As we always had to go on an empty stomach to receive communion, this small morsel of bread tasted like the best meal you've ever had to a breakfast-starved child. After a while, you're conditioned to crave the taste.

People watching/socializing. This is the thing that ultimately makes me not go to church. Yet, when I do go, I do it just like any good Armenian girl. I can't help myself. It's genetic! Just like the old theatres were the place for society to see and be seen, (think the second last scene in Dangerous Liaisons for example) well church is definitely like that too. We rush out after mass to see familiar faces, check out who is suddenly cute and potential marriage material, who is wearing what, etc. It's fun and it's horrendous at the same time.

I do love seeing the kids I grew up with. I love seeing the elderly family friends and showing them my babies. But inevitably in a small community, there is a ridiculous side. The fakeness, the showiness, the whispering. It's all too much and my mom cannot go and keep her mouth shut. Even during mass she has to point out who is there and comment on people. I love her, but she's an enabler. I'm trying not to live my life that way anymore, so I just avoid church rather than having to deal with it.

(Plus there are so many twice-a-year Christians on Easter that I don't think fire regulations are met and I get anxiety riddled thinking of all those people breathing in the same air.)

But really, like any ethnic group, a holiday isn't a holiday without the food. A big Easter meal at my aunt's house would feature no less than 15 appetizers. The problem with this style of Armo dim sum is that by the time the main course comes out, no one has room. These are special foods that often aren't eaten during the week, so the tendency is to stuff yourself to the point of discomfort so you can make it to the next holiday. You might gag at the thought of grape leaves stuffed with onions, but I go crazy if I don't eat these at least four times a year.

There is also choreg, a sweet bread that is similar to challa. When done right, it is so moist that and perfect that it could almost bring about world peace. When done wrong (usually because it was baked in an excited haste TWO WEEKS before Easter) it's dry and dense and devastating.

But, the most important aspect of Armenian Easter is the egg cracking game! We Armos are mighty competitive, and having the strongest egg is the cause for much celebration.

Here are three-minutes of egg-cracking, crazy-making fun at Lucy's first Easter. Added bonus: My mom trying to force feed Nate and then telling him she has to vacuum him. Funny! Hope your Easter was a good one!


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