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A day of love, Armenian style

A woman tosses flowers into the fire. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

Gyumri, ARMENIA – Newlyweds in Gyumri, Armenia got all fired up about their traditional spring event, Trndez.

The whole town has been preparing for a few days now for the big firelit night held February 13th in celebration of prosperity, love, spring and renewal.

Trndez is an Armenian apostolic holiday, where newlywed couples traditionally jump above a bonfire for a long and prosperous marriage. 

The crowd around the haystack, with the town hall in the background. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

A few hundred people gathered on Vartanants Square, the central square of Gyumri, at 5 p.m. and formed a circle around a big pile of hay. As more people joined, old women, parents and their children threw flower crowns and other plants on top of the hay. 

“It’s meant for happiness in the family and health for the following year,” said Tamara Hovannissian, an Armenian language teacher in Gyumri, who attended the event.

Hovannissian said the flowers and plants might be a reminder of the olive branches that were brought with Jesus to the temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, according to Armenian apostolic belief. 

She also said that normally, families get those flowers during Easter of the previous year. They keep them in their house all year and burn them on Trndez to keep sicknesses away.

At 5:40 p.m. the crowd was split in half to make way for the priests coming from the Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, on Vartanants Square.

A compact horde of eager old women quickly followed them to get closer to the center of the circle. A few unfriendly looks and irritated Armenian comments later, everyone was ready for the ceremony. 

Children were placed on the inner circle, holding each other by the pinkie. 

Children stand around the haystack. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

The priests sang and read the prayers to the sound of the cathedral bells. Separated into two groups with different attire, they spun around the hay as they recited prayers.

“It does not symbolize anything” about the meaning of the mysterious choreography, said Hovannissian, who is an Armenian and French language teacher in Gyumri.

Women, men and children all made the sign of the cross in unison all throughout the ceremony. In 2011, approximately 92% of the Armenian population claimed to be of the Armenian apostolic faith, according to the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious freedoms.

The crowd watches while the church leaders sing and pray. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)
The crowd stands back from the newly burning haystack. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

One of the priests then took a long torch, lit it with a candle and then ignited the hay all over. As it caught fire, the crowd seemed to reorganize itself.

All decked out in green t-shirts made for the occasion, members of Hrayrk, a traditional dance group based in Gyumri, came to the front with loud enthusiastic shouts. Music seemed to start blurting out from the ground. The front-liners of the circle started dancing around a blaze that reached about two meters higher than them. 

A young man leads the dance, teaching the moves to the crowd. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)
The band played traditional Armenian music for dancing. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

Temperature rose as fast as spirits as children and young people started to dance and shout.

But as people kept spinning, they grew dangerously close to the fire and a group of men urged the crowd to keep away.

And then the fire started turning into ashes. The dances stopped and the women rushed to the fire to light candles from the flames and to collect the ashes.

A woman collects ashes from the fire to bring home to bless her house. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

“The light is illumination,” said Varduhi Harutyunyan, a local holding a candle to her heart.

Harutyunyan, who was born and raised in Gyumri, explained that Trndez is celebrated “40 days after the birth of Jesus Christ” when he was, according to Armenian apostolic belief, taken to the temple of Jerusalem and purified.

A man lights a candle to bring some of the fire home with him. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

“We also do it on Christmas Eve,” she said, which in Armenia is celebrated on January 5th.

“The ashes are for under the trees and flowers,” said Harutyunyan, “for blessing the plants and for a good harvest.” They are meant for “unity, no war, and peace in the world.”

Candles like hers – held inside a Coca-Cola plastic bottle cut in half – were sold around the square by local residents.

The crowd, which had scattered across the square, came back together to start the jumping part of the ceremony. Children, couples, grandparents and toddlers started jumping in pairs and creating a human tunnel with their arms for following jumpers.

A man lifts a young child over the flames. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

New couples and newly married people are most likely to jump over the fire, said Arsen Sahakyan, who works at a marketing and creative lab in Gyumri.

Locals believe that the couples who got married that year should jump over the fire to be happy, healthy, blessed and purified.

“During the wedding, it makes it so it brings happiness,” said Hovannissian. She added that “it’s mandatory” for the fire to touch the couple’s legs while they are jumping, for it to bring happiness.

Two young friends make leap over the fire. (Mayalie Cieutat/YJI)

Matthew Elyan, an Armenian American who was present at the ceremony, said he once celebrated Trndez in Los Angeles, where he is from. He remembered jumping over a fire in what was “similar to a marshmallow stove.”

“Actually jumping over the fire is not really common,” Elyan said, of celebrating Trndez in Los Angeles. “We have to change that. We’ll buy some more stoves.”

Trndez wasn’t always celebrated as it is today though, said Sahakyan.

When Armenia became Christian, the church reclaimed this tradition to mark a clear break with pre-fourth century polytheistic customs.

“They had a mission to kill other religion stuff,” Sahakyan said. “They started to jump over the fire to say that ‘we are over that other god.’”

Instead, Trndez used to be a pagan celebration for the god of fire in ancient polytheist Armenia.

Back then, Sahakyan said, there was “no jumping, just celebrating.”

Mayalie Cieutat is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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