The fathers of the Armenian Church have divided the days of the year into three categories; dominical feasts, days of martyrs and saints, and fasting days.
These are feasts that are related to the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry as well as the feasts of Mary, Mother of God, the Holy and life-giving cross and to the Church. Thus, the dominical feasts are divided into four groups.
The feasts related to Jesus’ earthly ministry are the following: Annunciation, Nativity and Theophany, the Holy Name of Jesus, Presentation to the Temple, Transfiguration, Palm Sunday, Last Supper or Institution of Holy Communion, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.
The feasts related to St. Mary, Mother of God are the following: The Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Mother of God, Presentation of Anna to the Temple and Assumption of St. Mary, Discovery of the Box (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost), Discovery of the Belt (Second Sunday after the Assumption), and the Birth of the Holy Virgin Mary.
The feasts of the cross are the following: Apparition of the Holy Cross (Fourth Sunday after Easter), Exaltation of the Holy Cross (observed on the Sunday closest to 14 September), Holy Cross of Varak (Third Sunday of the Exaltation), Discovery of the Cross (Seventh Sunday of the Exaltation).
The feasts of the Church are following: New Sunday (First Sunday after Easter), Green Sunday (Second Sunday after Easter), Red Sunday (Third Sunday after Easter), the feast of establishment of Holy Echmiadzin by St. Gregory the Illuminator (Second Sunday after Pentecost), Commemoration of the Old Ark [of the covenant], the Feast of the New One – the Holy Church (Saturday preceding Transfiguration), Shoghagat—Feast of Echmiadzin (Saturday preceding the Assumption).
In the Armenian Apostolic Church, saints are commemorated on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. These are saints proclaimed by the Armenian Church and saints proclaimed by the Universal Church up until the 5th century. There are not fixed dates for the saints’ days except the newly canonised Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, which is celebrated on April 24th.
The Dates of the Feasts
The dates of the most of the feasts are related to the celebration of Holy Easter and are movable. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the spring Equinox and since 1923 the Armenian Church has been using the new Gregorian calendar.
The Feasts with a Fixed Date
Though most of the feast days do not have fixed dated, some of them have. These are mostly feasts related to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and St. Mary the Mother of God. The feasts with fixed dates are the following: Theophany and Epiphany – starting on the evening of 5th January. At the solemn Divine Liturgy, the good tidings of Christ’s birth are shared with the faithful, and on 6th January another solemn liturgy also celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Christmas is celebrated for 9 days. The Day of the Holy Name is celebrated on 13th January and the Presentation to the Temple on 14th February. Annunciation is celebrated on 7th April. Other fixed feasts include; the birth of St. Mary (8th September), Conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Mother of God (9th December) and Presentation of Anna to the Temple (21st November).
Five Cardinal or Daghavar Feasts
In the church calendar of the Armenian Church, the five major dominical feasts are considered as ‘cardinal feasts’ or Daghavar. These are the following days; Christmas – Epiphany (Dznoont), Easter (Zadig), Vartavar – Transfiguration, Assumption of Saint Mary, Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Khachveratz).
The day following each Daghavar is designated as a memorial day for the departed by death (merelotz in the Armenian language). Also, the week preceding each Daghavar is a week of fast, except for Easter, which has its own seven week fast named the Great Fast or Lent. On the following Monday of the Daghavars, people usually go to the cemetery to honour the memory of their departed ones, and the priest blesses the tombs. And also it is a duty for church members to receive communion on the days of Daghavar.
Christmas – Epiphany (Dznoont)
This feast is the anniversary of the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ. He was born in a manger in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem City, but He was baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Armenian Church celebrates both the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ on the same day, the 6th January. Because Jesus was baptised when He was almost thirty years old (Luke 3:23), His baptism happened nearly on the same day as His birthday, according to church traditions. For this reason, this feast is called birth and baptism, or Christmas and Epiphany. When Jesus was baptised, He prayed to His Father; and as He prayed, Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit of God descended upon Him like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven which said, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). By these words, the divinity of Jesus Christ was revealed to the world. This event is called Epiphany. In the beginning all Christian churches celebrated both Christmas and the baptism of Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January, as the Armenian Church does. But later on the date of Christmas was changed to the 25th day of December, which was the pagan feast day of the sun in Rome. In order to abolish this heathen feast, the Catholic Church transferred Christmas from the 6th day of January to the 25th day of December.
To this day the Armenian Church, being faithful to the old tradition of Christianity, continued to celebrate Christmas and the baptism on the same day, 6th January. Therefore, in the Armenian Church after the offering of Christmas Badarak (mass) a special ceremony of the blessing of water takes place every year. – The Cross is immersed in this blessed water and then taken out again, symbolizing the baptism of Jesus Christ.
In the Armenian tradition the first hymns of Christmas were assigned to Movses Khorenatsi in the 5th century. During the blessing of water, two wonderful pieces of Armenian hymnology are sung by 12th century author Grigor Bahlavouni (Ov Zarmanali-) and 13th century author Hovhanness Bluz Erzenkatsi (Aysor dzaynn hayrakan).
The day of Great Paregentan (carnival) comes three days after the Vardanantz Feast, followed by Lent, which lasts seven weeks. This is a period of repentance and fasting. Each Sunday of Lent is designated to a special purpose in the Armenian Church. For example, Paregentan~ Sunday is called “Paradise Sunday,” and the following Sundays are named, “The Exclusion,” “The Prodigal Son,” “The Steward,” “Unjust Judge,” “The Advent,” “Palm Sunday,” and then comes “Easter Sunday.” The last week of Lent is called Avak Shapat (Holy Week).
Easter is a feast that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died upon the Cross and was risen on the third day. The good news of His Resurrection encouraged His disciples, who were very sad and disheartened because of His great suffering and crucifixion.
In 325 (AD.) the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea decided to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday of the next full moon after the Spring Equinox. This is the reason that the Feast of Easter is movable and falls on one of the Sundays between March 22nd and April 25th.
The hymns of the resurrection were written by Stepanos Syunesti (VIII century), Anania of Shirak (VII century), John Mandakuni (V century), Nerses Shnorhali (XII century), Grigor Narekatsi (X century).
Vartavar – Transfiguration
The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ happened on a high mountain where Jesus had gone with Peter, James and John to pray. As He was praying, suddenly His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening, and there talked with Him two men who were Moses and Elijah. The Feast of Transfiguration is celebrated on the 6th August in the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. In the Armenian Church, by the arrangement of Saint Gregory the Illuminator it was celebrated on the first day of the month of Navasart, which fell on the 11th August. But Catholicos Moses of Eghivart changed the date of this feast and transferred it to the Sunday fourteen weeks after Easter, when he renewed the Armenian Church calendar in 551 (A.D.). Therefore, according to this new arrangement, the Feast of Transfiguration began to be celebrated in the Armenian Church between June 28th and August 1st, on one of the Sundays adjusted from the date of Easter of each year.
This feast is also called Vartavar in the Armenian tradition. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Vartavar was one of the great pagan feasts of the Armenian people before Christianity. At this feast of Vartavar, the people of Armenia decorated the temple of the goddess Asdghig with roses and flowers. For this reason, the feast was called Vartavar, which means decoration with roses. On this occasion, people let pigeons fly in the air and threw water on each other. However, the practice of sprinkling water on each other has been handed down to us so that even today in many places this is still the custom. Saint Gregory the Illuminator, in order to abolish this heathen custom, united it with the Feast of Transfiguration.
Assumption of Saint Mary
The Assumption of Saint Mary is a feast which commemorates the death and assumption of the Mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ to Heaven. In the Armenian Church there are other feasts of Saint Mary. It is celebrated in the Armenian Church on the nearest Sunday to 15th August, and is continued for nine days according to the arrangement of Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali (XII century). In the other ancient churches, the Feast of the Assumption of Saint Mary is always celebrated on the 15th August, whether it falls on a Sunday or on a weekday. The Feast of the Assumption of Saint Mary was established on the following tradition: Her death happened on the 15th August. However, the Apostle Bartholomew was absent at the time of her funeral. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he wanted to see her. When they opened the tomb and did not find her body there, this empty tomb caused them to think that her body was transmitted to Heaven, just as Jesus had formerly promised her.
On the first day of this feast after the offering of the Mass, the grapes are blessed in the Armenian Church. Again the Catholicos, Nerses the Graceful, is the founder of this ceremony and prayer for the blessing of the grapes.
The hymns of this feast day were written by the Catholicos, Nerses the Graceful.
Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Khachveratz)
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the last one of these five cardinal feasts or Daghavars. The Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross commemorates the emancipation of the Cross of Christ from Persia and elevation of it on Calvary in Jerusalem. The story of this event is as follows:
When the Persian King, King Khosrov, occupied Jerusalem in 610 (AD.), he carried also the Cross of Christ with him to Persia as a bondage in order to insult the Christian community. In 628 (A. D.) Emperor Heracles of Constantinople conquered Persia and emancipated the Cross of Christ from the bondage and brought it back to Jerusalem. The Armenian people also have their own version of this event. When the Cross was emancipated from Persia, it was brought first to Garin (a city in Armenia), and it was carried through Armenia into Constantinople and then to Jerusalem. Patriarch Zakariah of Jerusalem decorated the Cross with roses and flowers and erected it on the Hill of Calvary. On this occasion the Church of Jerusalem celebrated\the emancipation of the Cross of Christ with great honour and much enthusiasm in order to inspire the people with the spiritual meaning of the Cross. One mountain top of Garin is called Khachapayd (the wood of the Holy Cross). When the Cross was carried from Persia to Jerusalem, the carriers passed through a road on this mountain. This is the reason why this mountain top is called the Khachapayd. Also, for the same reason an Armenian convent near the City of Garin is called Khachga Vank (the Convent of the Cross)
Between the Feast of Khachveratz and the Feast of Varaka Khach, there is another commemoration which is called “the Feast of the Church.” This commemoration has close connection with the Feasts of the Cross. That is the reason that it is celebrated in this period.
Fasting or Abstinence days
There are two kinds of fasting:
1. Abstinence from meat and animal products – “bahk”
2. Total abstinence – “dzom”
Fasting days are classified as follows:
Every Wednesday and Friday is a day of fasting, except during the forty days after Easter (until Ascension) and during the octave of Theophany (January 6 – 13).
The Fast of Great Lent and Holy Week (7 weeks)
Great Fast (medz bahk) starts on the first day of Great Lent, until Great Saturday.
There are ten weeklong fasts preceding major feasts and commemorations, observed from Monday to Friday, except for the Fast of the Nativity which is 6 days:
1. Fast of Nativity/Theophany: December 30—January 4
2. Fast of the Catechumens: January 25—30
3. Fast of Elijah: May 25—29
4. Fast of our Holy Father St. Gregory the Illuminator: July 15—19
5. Fast of Transfiguration: July 6—10
6. Fast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God: August 10—14
7. Fast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: September 7—11
8. Fast of the Holy Cross of Varak: September 21—25
9. Fast of Advent: November 16—20
10. Fast of St. Hagop: December 7—11