Although now a Christian tradition, Vartavar’s history dates back to pagan times. The ancient festival is traditionally associated with the goddess Astghik, who was the goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festivities associated with this religious observance of Astghik were named “Vartavar” because Armenians offered her roses as a celebration (“vart” means “rose” in and “var” mean “rise”), this is why it was celebrated in the harvest time. The word Vartavar has two meanings: “the flaming of the rose and “to sprinkle with water.
Vartavar is currently celebrated about 98 days (14 Sundays) after Easter. During the day of Vardevar, people from a wide array of ages are allowed to douse strangers with water. It is common to see people pouring buckets of water from balconies on the unsuspecting walking below them. The festival is very popular among children as it is one day where they can get away with pulling pranks. Even young wives enjoy drenching their husbands and mothers-in-law. It is also a means of refreshment on the usually hot and dry summer days of July.
According to one legend, the goddess Astghik spread love through the Armenian land by sprinkling rosy water. Since Vartavar has its roots in pre-Christian times, one of the best places to observe it is near the only left pagan temple in Armenia, in Garni, where it feels a lot more authentic. According to another legend, Vahakn, Astghik’s beloved, was once injured in a struggle with evil. She rushed barefoot to his aid but on the way hurt her feet while treading over the roses, her blood turning them red. This is how red roses came into being: the flower of love was born. She had her temple, where young and old alike would go on pilgrimage to praise her, sing songs, and offer bouquets of flowers and other gifts. On the other hand, Anahit was the goddess of “purity, kindness, nurturing, temperance, fertility, wealth, and fullness”. She was identified with water, as a cleansing and purifying agent. In the ancient Hittite language “ooard” meant “water” and “ar” – “to wash”. These were related to Anahit’s celebration.
The essence of the rituals is splashing with water. On that day water is considered to be curative and powerful, especially in divinations and the foretelling of futures. It was superstitiously believed to be a means of driving away evil. The accompanying traditional songs, dances, and games were supplications to the gods to give water to the dry earth. People would present roses to each other and loving couples would set pigeons free. If the pigeon flew over the young girls roof three times then it was an omen that the man would marry the girl in the fall.
In mountainous areas, the festivities took on a different form. It was more widespread to offer animals, the first fruits, and wheat husks to each other. Pilgrimages were organized, as were feasts and festivities. Shepherds would gather colorful flowers to make bouquets. The foreheads of cows were also decorated with flowers. When children saw a cow with a cross of flowers on the forehead, they would start singing traditional songs. With two days worth of food, crowds would travel to holy springs, taking animals that had been decorated with flowers. The animals were offered to the gods, hoping to receive their grace. Young girls would take bouquets of flowers from one home to another, singing, dancing, and receiving presents. In the villages nooree (pomegranate) dolls walked around and eggs, flour, and butter were gathered.
Similar to other holidays, Vartavar also bore the character and symbol of fertility. Young women who were engaged made khntoom (laughing), a small garden made of wheat or barley sprouts. A piece of wood with wings was placed in the center. An apple or pear (considered Vartavar fruits) was fixed to it and was decorated with cucumbers and roses. An old woman (who took the role of Anaheet) twirled the plate and everyone danced around it. Finally, fruits and flowers were distributed to the people. Only after this ritual, were people allowed to eat apples and pears. Presenting apples, flowers, and other gifts, was common. A special horse-riding game called passaloo was also played, during which the young men would try to throw their competitors into the water. Wrestling bouts and bullfights were also very common, accompanied by the songs and dance of the young females of the village.
Different regions in Armenia celebrated the harvest with different traditions. For instance, in the district of Koghtn it was customary to hold a ritual during this festival involving green wheat that had previously budded. In other regions, special rituals were directly connected with animal husbandry. The Armenian Meliks marked the day with feasts held in the fields and rituals dedicated to fertility-such as bringing fruits as gifts to future brides and grooms, throwing fruits on their heads, or sending them apples. Throughout much of Armenia, families enjoyed delicious harisa as part of the feast.