Celebrating Armenian Christmas in Venice, Italy
Many of my readers and blog followers may not know that though I've lived half of my life in Italy and I was raised in California, my family's origin is Armenian. My paternal grandparents were from Van (then Armenia today Turkey) and Alexandria (Egypt). My maternal grandparents were from Malatya and Ankara (Turkey). Today being January 6th and Armenian Christmas, I pulled out a heartfelt post I wrote some years ago which was published in YEREVAN Magazine. The sentiments are as authentic today as they were then. I hope you find it informative and enjoyable.
Yesterday was a day reminiscent of my childhood. It brought to mind memories of me fidgeting in the front pew of the Armenian Holy Cross church in sunny Los Angeles; of ruffle itching dresses, bobby socks, and shiny patent leather shoes snug on my dangling feet. I remember how I would pretend to not see my mother's silent looks of disapproval as my siblings and I would complain, usually with a not so subtle cough, about sitting so close to all that incense. This time the incense, a symbol of honor and dignity in the Armenian mass that represents our prayers ascending to heaven, didn't bother me. Instead it was a soothing reminder of a family tradition, and yesterday I shared that tradition with my husband and friends at the Monastic Headquarters of the Mekhitarian Order in the church of San Lazzaro or Saint Lazarus. It's on the homonymous--fog shrouded in the winter and sun kissed in the summer--island in the Venetian lagoon. More simply known to the Venetians as Isola degli Armeni or the Armenian Island.
Stop if you will for a moment and think about this: the Mekhitarian monks have inhabited, worshiped and spread their love of knowledge from their tiny island headquarters for over 300 years! The United States of America wasn't yet independent when in 1717 the Venetian Senate gifted this island to the Armenian Abbot and scholar Mekhitar, giving him and his fellow monks refuge from the Turkish invasion of their former homeland. A gift that one might argue was made for political, intellectual, religious or even personal reasons. It is said Mekhitar was a friend of the Mocenigo family, at the time one of Venice's most prominent and powerful. But, whatever the reason, this gift reflects the close ties between the Venetians and the Armenians of that era and today. Here is a photograph taken
yesterday of a more recent symbol of their close ties. The traditional, 14th century, khatchkar or stone cross that was a gift from the Armenian government to the city of Venice in 1987 (coincidentally the same year I moved to Venice) and in turn given by the city to the Mekhitarian Fathers; they being the most appropriate guardians of the cross. It can be seen at the entrance to the monastery surrounded by three pomegranate trees--another symbol of Armenia and her people.
But back to yesterday. We received a warm, hospitable welcome from the Mekhitarian monks. They opened their island, and embraced a hundred or so worshippers and guests for the Epiphany or Armenian Christmas mass. It was a morning of tradition, communion, canto fit for the finest theater and the ritual of blessing of the holy water for the year to come. After the mass, and while still in church, there was an added ceremony of fraternity between the monks and the congregation. A small cup of the newly blessed holy water was given to everyone to drink. An extra blessing of sorts, that was lovely to partake in and observe.
Afterwards, everyone gathered in the refectory where the monks and seminary students served us a soul warming, home cooked meal of olives and pickles from their orchard and vegetable garden, rice pilaf, roast potatoes, veal and vegetable stew, and of course red or white wine. A lovely meal, in a spectacular room adorned with the wall size 18th century Da Vinci style painting of The Last Supper by Pietro Novelli. An interesting note: above the door to the refectory, written in Armenian are the words "Keep Silent Here". It is their practice to dine in silence, yet they were kind enough to break that rule for us and share in conversation and comradery, and I thank them.
Stomachs full, and hearts warmed by old and new friends, we started our tour of the monastery and its extraordinary library and museum, where volumes of centuries old manuscripts, books and artifacts are on display; too many to describe here. My only suggestion is that on your next trip to Venice you try and make time to visit this marvelous island and its community within a community.
Շնորհաւոր Սուրբ Ծնունդ - Merry Armenian Christmas,