I’m continually in awe of the variety and depth of Armenian customs. Whether it be playing the delightfully simple yet simultaneously infuriating egg tapping game after Easter Liturgy, or dancing the Kochari under the summer sun at the annual church picnic, Armenian traditions comprise nearly every characteristic of the human experience: faith, family, community, and— perhaps the most important—food.
As an unmarried young woman, one particular ritual has captured my attention in recent years—St. Sarkis (also St. Sargis) Day. It’s fitting that one of the most ancient and storied of cultures has a feast day dedicated to one of the most gripping and timeless of topics: love.
St. Sarkis is recognized as a martyr in the Armenian Apostolic Church for refusing to participate in a Zoroastrian fire ritual. During his execution, an angel appeared to Sarkis and instructed him: “Be strong. Do not fear the killers of your body; for the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven is open for you.”
Inspired by the angel’s message, Sarkis made one last passionate plea for his soldiers to accept Christ, and, when he died, light appeared over his body.
According to folklore, as a young military captain Sarkis and his 39-member troop celebrated their victory over a Persian army and when they fell asleep the rival king ordered 40 women to kill the soldiers. All but one of the women obeyed this order; she fell in love when she saw the handsome and peaceful face of Sarkis sleeping. Instead of killing him, she kissed him and awoke Sarkis, who took the woman on horseback, smashed the gates of the palace, and sent a violent snowstorm to the city. It is according to this legend that Sarkis is designated the patron saint of love and youth for Armenians.
On the eve of St. Sarkis Day, single men and women eat salty biscuits, otherwise known as Aghablit, before bed, and whoever appears to them in their dreams bringing them water is said to be their future spouse. As a bonus, porridge can be left by the door of the family home, and if horseshoe prints appear in the soup that means that St. Sarkis has visited the home and good luck is supposed to descend upon the family for an entire year.
When explaining the conventions of St. Sarkis Day to my friends and family, I am usually met with squeals of delight that such a tradition exists or sounds of sorrow pitying me for upholding this practice. Last year, as I paraded around my house announcing that it was St. Sarkis Day, my dad laughed at me but lauded my participation in Armenian mythology. My mom, on the other hand, picked up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s EMPOWERmint ice cream from the grocery store and reminded me that regardless of whoever arrived in my dreams, I still needed to stay motivated in my educational pursuits.
As I arranged oyster crackers into a heart-shaped formation, a discussion broke out among my family about dating, relationships, love, and marriage. Conversations like these are ubiquitous in Armenian homes and are accompanied by two fear-driven scenarios. The first is the thought of “who on earth would want to marry into my big, fat, loud Armenian family?” and the second is “heaven forbid I end up alone and am living with my parents at 45!”
All jokes aside, discussions like these harken to an article the late Tom Vartabedian wrote in 2015, titled “Matchmaker: No Match Necessary!” Vartabedian notes how, “as conscientious Armenians, we need to be thinking about the welfare of our own people. If we don’t support and patronize our own kind, then who else will?”
Unfortunately, apps like Tinder and various social media platforms have dominated the dating landscape; it appears that superficial suppositions, such as “how cultivated is one’s Instagram profile?” or “how much money do they make?” have replaced genuine answers to questions like “how does this person treat others?” or “how can this person and I work together to create a impactful life?”
Granted, I believe serious questions do not have to be explored on a first date, and the pursuit of romantic relationships will always end with the will of God. My parents and grandparents openly share lighthearted stories with my siblings and me from past dates and with the intention of encouraging us to create meaningful friendships within the Armenian community and to use our young adult life to explore our own pursuits and passions. While the retelling of these experiences make my siblings and me cringe, I understand the objective.
My generation gets caught up in the commotion of the dating game and the desire to find a perfect mate. Prospective relationships are often treated like physics problems where “potential energy” with the other person is frantically pondered instead of going out and determining if indeed the two people are compatible.
My solution to this problem: take a risk and go on a date, but do not act risqué. A date does not necessarily mean you automatically have feelings toward that person; it is just an outing to explore mutual interests. Understand that the perfect person does not exist, and embrace each other’s shortcomings with grace and patience. Respect the other person if it doesn’t work out and steer clear of mindless gossip.
Do not wait behind the prelude of possibility, but instead orchestrate your own adventures and see where it leads you. Marriage is at the forefront of Armenian minds, maybe because no other party can even begin to rival the thrill of an Armenian wedding. Armenian parents should not mandate that their children marry someone of Armenian descent, but rather spend the time to teach a non-Armenian spouse about the culture; that ensures customs like St. Sarkis Day will continue to thrive for future generations.
This year I commemorated St. Sarkis Day at a church retreat, where I eagerly distributed saltine crackers to willing and unwilling participants of the festivities. I went ahead and and included Smarties candy into the mix as well: Intelligence is an attribute we all desire in a significant other.