For many places around the world New Year’s is outshined by Christmas. Thankfully not so in Armenia. New Year (Nor Tari) is far and away more popular and central to the Armenian culture.
Local kids selling shots of vodka to those that pass by.
Nor Tari isn’t much like Western New Years Eve; there’s a lot of drinking, eating and socializing. Actually that is pretty similar to NYE around the world but Nor Tari cranks it up to 11 by lasting more than one night. Normally it starts on December 31 watching the ball drop on TV like everyone else in the world and continues until the Epiphany on January 6. That’s a solid week of celebration. And it’s not like Carnival in Brazil. The biting cold winter of the Caucasus mountains means everyone is staying inside to eat and drink.
Even without the holiday it’s still a great idea. The winters in Armenia suck hard. Most houses are stone houses with crummy insulation. Only one room is heated. Going to the outhouse often means battling ferocious winds, ice slicks and snow drifts. I once did laundry and my fingers almost froze solid hanging my things out to dry. My pants actually did freeze solid. So with all the cold misery winter brings why not have the biggest party of the year then? Make winter something to look forward to instead of dreading.
Three generations of host family. Grandmother, aunt (far left), mother (far right), and sister.
The center of Nor Tari are friends and family. Just like Christmas in other countries, this is the big time for far flung family members to return home for a few days as well as visit everyone in the surrounding villages. And since hospitality is genetically wired into Armenian culture, friends and family means food. Sometimes people will coordinate and have large dinners at a single house. Sometimes people go off by their lonesome. Men visit their neighbors for some vodka. Women visit their friends for wine or coffee and cake. What ends up happening is that for a week there’s a constant stream of people going to and fro. And they’re all inviting each other to come along. I haven’t tested this theory yet, but a known serial killer would be invited inside for dinner during Nor Tari. It’s just that open.
Handmade Armenian cakes.
The men drinking their vodka.
As the biggest celebration of the year, most Armenian families save up just to throw a lavish spread. Some of the more consumptive families take out loans to throw a part big enough to impress their friends. But that happens more in the city than in the villages. In the villages people throw parties, but it’s expected that you’ll be expecting so many visitors over the days that throwing one huge party is a waste.
As an American I was lucky enough to experience Nor Tari twice. Both years I was invited to dozens of homes and drank dozens of shots and ate dozens of pounds of food. A normal day would involve waking up, eating some left overs that an Armenian mother forced me to take from dinner last night, take a shower, and then visit three or four houses of people I knew. It was far and away the best time in Armenia. Being a foreigner I was treated like a rock star. I may have visited four houses a day, but in each of those houses I was the only foreign guest they’d ever had. Pushy with getting me to eat on a normal day, the Armenian women would have pried open my mouth with a crowbar and just shoveled food in if I tried to refuse. And the men would bring the cognac to go with the meal and keep me hungry. After eating, drinking, talking, dancing (depending on how much drinking happened) I would beg to be excused and make my way to another house to do it all over again. To be honest, after experience Nor Tari I don’t really enjoy other celebrations. They’re just not as awesome.
World famous cognac.
Pro-tip: If you’re ever asked to make a toast to Armenians, make one out to all the women who worked to provide all the excellent food. They really appreciate it and their efforts are often taken for granted in Armenian society.