Mariam is baking cakes for 70 children this weekend. The priest at Tatev Monastery asked her to do it to mark Barekendan, the festival of freedom and happiness that presages the start of Lent. Barekendan takes place on the 7th Sunday before Easter and is an occasion for eating cake and dancing in the streets, in advance of 40 days of abstinence in the run-up to Good Friday.
During Lent, members of the Apostolic church do much as Christians in the rest of the world. It is a time for purification of the soul, for giving up meat, and for trying to at least cut back on the bad stuff. In the past, Armenians took this very seriously, sometimes partaking of only bread, salt and water.
As Mariam prepares for her baking marathon, she sings a song associated with Barekendan–this Sunday’s carnival. The song is along the lines of the Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly but involves a sheep who eats grass, a wolf who eats the sheep, the bear who eats the wolf and so on. You can hear the song by clicking below.
Mariam also told me a folk tale associated with Barekendan. A man asked his wife to stock up with oil and rice for Barekendan. She did so, without knowing what or who Barekendan was. (Perhaps she was an American who came to Armenia with Peace Corps and knew nothing of local habits?). Soon after, a stranger arrived at her door and asked for food.
“Are you Barekendan?” the housewife asked, causing the stranger, familiar with the Apostolic calendar, to consider her a little touched in the head. To humor the befuddled woman he replied “Yes, I am Barekendan” and was thus promptly supplied with oil and rice. He left, feeling well pleased with the turn of events.
The woman’s husband came home and, discovering both his wife’s mistake and the empty cupboard, went off in search of the stranger. He rode his horse, and soon caught up with the stranger, who had had the good sense to stash his spoils somewhere out of sight.
“Have you seen the stranger who took off with our oil and rice for Barekendan?” asked the husband, astride his horse.
“Yes” replied the stranger, prepared to play along with the second member of this eccentric family. “He went that way, but the road is very narrow. You’d be better off on foot”.
The husband relinquished his reins and set off as the stranger directed. The stranger congratulated himself on ending his day with not only oil and rice, but also a horse on which to ride home.
What the legend of Barekendan has to do with Lent I am not quite sure, but Mariam and I had a lovely time discussing it, and listening to the song. With luck there will be leftover cake on Monday. Oh wait, shouldn’t I be giving up sugar for Lent?