In the old days, in the old country, young Armenian girls wore their hair in two long braids until their wedding day-the most important day of their lives.
Afterward, so the tradition goes, the women hid their hair under scarves, because only their husbands should see it.
Hair was the hallmark of feminine beauty. The longer and thicker her tresses, the more desirable a woman was to a potential husband-for everyone knew that long hair meant she was virtuous and good.
When a girl was immoral, or bad, her mother punished her by cutting off her hair. As a result, the whole village knew of her shame and she was no longer considered a desirable bride.
Last weekend, in traditional Armenian bridal attire-dominated by the color red-Susan Ounjian, with two braided hair pieces draped over her shoulders and falling to her knees, danced her way through the array of modern-day white wedding gowns showcased at a Glendale hotel in what was billed as the first Armenian Bridal Show on the West Coast.
The event was organized by two friends who had in mind the white weddings of modern American women, but with a special Armenian touch.
Maryna Danielian of Glendale and Luna Merzian of Burbank viewed the hundreds of prospective brides, their fiances and families flowing through the Red Lion Inn on Sunday and decided it was good; they would make a career out of organizing bridal shows.
Hundreds of people window-shopped the goods and services on display: tuxedos, bridal gowns, attendants’ costumes, photography, catering and decorating ideas.
“Her wedding is the biggest day of (an Armenian woman’s) life,” Danielian, 23, explained. “I would not dream of leaving my house until the music band got me from the house and took me to the church. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. The music is so distinct. You hear it and you know there’s a wedding going on.”
Though the gowns featured Sunday were the non-traditional white dresses, their vendors were of Armenian descent-merchants who understand a wedding’s profound significance and its place in the intricacies of the Armenian social fabric, Danielian said.
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The show was not just about sales, Danielian said. It was, literally, about speaking the same language; about getting the right chicken kebab, the right Armenian wedding music, the right symbolic favors and the right photographs of the right family members and other guests.
The wealthier Armenian parents do not think twice about spending $30,000 to $50,000 for a daughter’s wedding, Danielian said. And she said she expects her own future wedding, with the right Armenian man, to cost that much.
“The family is very, very important in the Armenian
community,” said Merzian, 24, who was identically dressed in a white vest and slacks as Danielian, her friend and business partner.
Merzian said she expects to marry her boyfriend, an Armenian, within the next year.
“Some families will force you to, but I want to marry an Armenian, because you come from the same background and you understand each other,” she said. “I went to a private Armenian school in Hollywood and I plan to send my children to private Armenian schools.”
Fierce loyalty to their culture is in an Armenian’s blood, said Ounjian, 43, who left her home, job and family in Virginia 13 years ago for California in search of that right Armenian man to marry.
The Burbank resident, who today makes her living by dancing at countless local Armenian parties and gatherings, said she knew there was a better chance of finding that man in the Los Angeles area which, with an Armenian population of about 300,000, is the largest such community outside the republic, itself. Armenians constitute about 40,000 of Glendale’s 195,000 population. The city’s mayor, Larry Zarian, is of Armenian descent.
Once she arrived, Ounjian was told she should hear the great Armenian music of Johnny Bilezekjian who plays the oud, a guitar-like instrument. She heard that music and wound up marrying the oud player’s cousin, Michael Ounjian, with whom she has two sons.
Armenians, Ounjian said proudly, have a symbol-the wheel of eternity.
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“We have no beginning; we have no end. We’ll always be turning,” the dancer said, pointing to just such a wheel on her necklace.
“We have a sad history of massacre after massacre,” said Ounjian, who sometimes works for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a teacher of Armenian culture. “The Romans, the Turks, the Mongols, you name it-they all came through Armenia and have taken and killed. But we survived.”
Armenian history is as old as the Bible, in which the Garden of Eden is described as the source of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and, therefore, the source of Armenia, where the rivers make their path.
Legend has it that after The Great Flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, the highest peak in biblical lands. The Armes, led by Noah’s grandson, Haik,marched east from Phrygia through the upper Euphrates valley and founded Armenia at the foot of the mount. Christianity was introduced in the region by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. And, in AD 301, Armenia became the world’s first Christian nation, according to material on the Armenian Cultural Festival prepared by Los Angeles City College.
Ounjian says she has worn her traditional bridal attire for special occasions since she bought it and a man’s costume for $1,000 some 20 years ago while visiting what was then Soviet Armenia. The garb won a gold medal at the 1974 State Exhibition in Moscow for best representation of a national dress, she said.
Though now a bit tattered-its pink lining faded to white-Ounjian proudly wears the costume as if she had bought it yesterday. Over the white dress, she wears a red apron and a darker red, richly embroidered velvet jacket. A headdress with veil and a “dowry” of gold coins strung around her neck complete the wedding attire of olden days.
That was a time when girls married young. By age 19 or 20, they were considered too old-only good enough to marry widowers with children and to be sent away to another village. Boys usually were engaged between the ages of 15 and 20.
Marriages were either arranged by both parents or by a matchmaker.
Generally, the groom was readied for his wedding day with much laughter and horseplay, while the bride and her family spent much of their remaining days together lamenting their upcoming parting.
On the wedding day, the bride’s parish priest arrived at the house to bless the wedding garments before they were donned. Very often, a “half wedding,” kes psak, was performed at the girl’s house. This was intended to make it impossible for the girl’s parents to substitute a less desirable daughter for the promised bride.
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There at the bride’s home, the bridal attendants, or a skillful village balladeer sang. But more often than not, the bride sang laments to her parents, for she was leaving her childhood home.
Meanwhile, the groom’s happy procession of immediate family and other relatives, accompanied by a band of drum and horn players, wound its way to the girl’s house to claim the bride while the groom waited patiently at the church. The wedding, and the celebrating, sometimes lasted up to seven days and nights.
“The Armenians are party animals,” Ounjian explained. “They know the joy of life, because they know the pain of life.”
The dancer, who fondly recalled her grandparents who taught her to dance and made her speak Armenian at home, said she is passing on the dances, costumes and jewelry-her traditions-to her sons, Nishan, 10, and Vahan, 8. She had hoped for a daughter, but the boys are fine as her partners, she said.
Today, young Armenian women, especially in the United States, rarely don the traditional bridal garb. But they often cling to traces of their culture in the betrothal ritual, where family members are also involved; the food chosen for the reception; the drum and horn music at the wedding; the dancing; and, most of all, in the way they show respect for family elders who have made it all possible.
And it is that heritage, one maybe as old as the Garden of Eden, that Danielian and Merzian-the two young entrepreneurs-hoped to help preserve with their Armenian Bridal Show on Sunday.
With the advice of her mother, Caroline Gellibolian, 22, of Tarzana, showed up with her fiance, Steven Aslanian, 26. Aslanian recalled their engagement, but more important, the khosk’ kap, which preceded it, when his family went to her family’s home to ask for her hand.
“We came to your garden to pick a flower,” Aslanian’s grandmother said to his future fiancee’s father.
The father, nervous about letting go of his only daughter, hesitated.
“We are not going to eat until you agree to it,” the grandmother pressed.
So, it was agreed. And the two young lovers plan to marry by next July.