The most joyous celebration among Armenians is Vartavar, when people sprinkle water on each other remembering the story of Noah and Flood. Unfortunately, throughout the centuries this beautiful custom had been reintroduced as a pagan feast dedicated to some idols. The atheist scholars (this is what we learned in the schools and universities in Armenia for almost eight decades during the communist regime) emphasized this idea more. However, those scholars never explained or questioned why the Armenians kept celebrating Vartavar by sprinkling water on each other and gifting roses to each other on the Feast day of Transfiguration of Jesus Christ?
It is historically proved that the Christian Church turned some of the pagan feasts into Christian celebrations and that St. Gregory the Illuminator joined the celebration of “pagan” Vartavar with the Transfiguration of our Lord not only to stop the pagan custom, but also to call to remembrance that the Armenians celebrated Vartavar long ago, starting from our forefather Noah after Flood when the Ark came to rest on top of the Mt. Ararat:
“This ancient feast that keeps the memory of the Flood has got a new Christian reinterpretation and is related to the Transfiguration of Christ in the following way. According to the Armenian Church Fathers and especially to St. Grigor Tatevatsi (1345-1409), the feast of Transfiguration is called Vartavar, because the brightness of a rose is hidden in its bud, and likewise Jesus kept hidden the light of His Divine glory in His body prior to His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Afterwards, He revealed and showed it in all its brightness on Mount Tabor.” (Vardan Devrikyan. Transfiguration and the Feast of Vartavar. Yerevan: "MAGALAT" publishing house, 2006; p. 3-4)
The Armenian Church has always celebrated the Feast of Transfiguration in the summer time. Along with the other traditional churches, the Armenian Church used to celebrate this feast on August 6, however, after the fifth century Armenians started to celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord on the 98th day (that is, the 14th Sunday) following Easter, between June 28 and August 1. Therefore, it was easy for St. Gregory to transfigure the old and pagan feast into a new and Christian celebration.
Armenians always celebrated Vartavar in the summer time on month of Navasard, which was the first month of the Armenian New Year falling from August 11 to September 9. Because of the geography and the climate in Armenia, this is the only perfect time for Armenians to swim in the rivers and lakes or to sprinkle water on each other. The name Navasard has an interesting meaning and explanation which will spread more light on this celebration and will show and prove the idea that Armenians celebrated Vartavar before the pagan times.
For some linguists this word has a Persian root: the word nava means new and the word sard means year, which makes sense, because the old Armenian calendar started the New Year with the month of Navasard. Therefore, this month marked the beginning of the New Year and by sprinkling water on each other on the first day of the year, pagan Armenians cleansed themselves from their old lifestyle and prepared themselves to enter and to celebrate the New Year.
However, the word Navasard has a deep explanation in Armenian which is very much related to this thesis. The word nav means ship and the word sar means mountain in Armenian. We read in the Bible that the Noah’s Ark rested on top of the Mountain Ararat and that “In the six hundred and the first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry” (Genesis 8:4; 13).
This is the first day of the new era of the humanity; this is the first day of the second generation of the humanity. And Armenians called the first month of the New Year Navasard to emphasize the Biblical truth that Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mountain Ararat. Therefore, every year Armenians celebrated the New Year by sprinkling water on each other and let the doves fly to keep the story of Flood and Noah alive in their national custom and to remember the story of the second generation of humanity.
We assume that St. Gregory performed his first baptism service of the Armenian People in 301 on the day of the Feast of Transfiguration of our Lord. First, because it was summer time and the weather was just perfect for catechumens to go into the river (running waters) to be baptized by St. Gregory.
Secondly, as we know Vartavar had been celebrated in the summer time, and that was the reason that St. Gregory transfigured the pagan Vartavar into a Christian celebration by giving a new meaning to that national custom. If the Armenians sprinkled water on each other as a fun event or as a part of pagan celebration, after adopting the Christian faith, Armenians sprinkled water on each other to remember the first baptism ever performed in the Armenian Land by the Holy Apostles and by St. Gregory the Illuminator.
Therefore, the first day of the salvation of the second generation of humanity became the first day of the salvation and transfiguration of the entire nation.
In the story of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-9, Luke 9:28-36, 2 Peter 1:17-18) we read that Jesus took with Him three of His Apostles (Peter, James, and John) on top of the Mount Tabor and was transfigured in front of their eyes, showing them the beauty of His Kingdom and the Light that came out of His Body.
The water baptism is that personal transfiguration, when after washing away our sins, we are becoming transfigured, and retrieving our lost image and becoming the dwelling place and a temple for the Holy Spirit. We are putting on Jesus (Romans 13:14) and getting illuminated through His Light. We are becoming a new and transfigured person in this world for His glory. Therefore, when we sprinkle water on each other on the day of Vartavar, we remind ourselves of our own baptism and “renew” it with the Light of Mount Tabor.
It is interesting to mention that the stories of the prophets appeared to Jesus at that time; Moses and Elijah are greatly connected with the water. Moses saved his nation passing them through the Red Sea, which became the symbol of the Christian Baptism. The life and the mission of Prophet Elijah are full with the presence of water. Many miracles were performed with the water, he was the one who was praying God to send rain or stop it (1 Kings 17 and James 5:17).
As we can see, water was and is one of the essential and necessary parts of these celebrations, not only in national customs, but also in the liturgical celebrations. Unfortunately, the religious connotation and the meaning of the usage of the water during these celebrations were lost in the course of history, but we hope that through the grace of God, our people will realize that sprinkling water on each other on the day of Transfiguration is not only fun to keep us cool in the summer time, but also has a deep religious meaning to remind us that we were transfigured and became the adopted children of God through the water baptism.
Adapted from: Rev. Fr. Hovel Ohanyan, Water As A Symbol Of Spiritual Rebirth In The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Holy Church, Dissertation, September 2014, Berkeley, California, Burbank, 2015