Merry Christmas and ‘hayeren khoseer’
It’s not always easy to pass on ethnic traditions in a melting pot—but it’s worth the effort
Monday, November 21, 2005
Reader Essay It’s bad enough kids hear the repeated rules of life’s road: "Look both ways before you cross," "Don’t talk to strangers," and the beloved "Eat your vegetables." Add to that an ethnically trademarked phrase in our home, "Hayeren khoseer," and you could qualify to join the Child Naggers of America Club.
Two words: First generation. Speaking Armenian was always strictly enforced in my childhood home, and while I used to roll my eyes when I was told to "hayeren khoseer," or speak Armenian, I’m better for it now. My second generation husband, Jim, and I are passing that along to our kids, whether they like it or not.
My late father, an Armenian immigrant born in Greece, relocated with his family to the Middle East, while my mother’s Armenian family relocated during the Holy Wars. They arrived in the United States separately with little money, a few tired suitcases and a wealth of cultural richness. Soon, they began to dip their reluctant fingers into America’s melting pot—while vowing to raise children who would know and appreciate the rich culture of a people who had barely survived history.
How could I be the last member of my family to learn that culture? How could I be the one to defy my ailing medz mama, who, at the birth of my first child and her fifth great-grandchild, implored me (in Armenian, of course) to "Teach your children well and never lose sight of the nation of which you came."
I haven’t. I try to keep the traditions alive by sharing not only the burdens, but also the fun of our culture. My fondest childhood memories are of Armenian Christmas, celebrated across the world on Jan. 6. Our family would attend church then eat a big dinner of shish kebab, monti (a dumpling dish in a savory soup), rice pilaf, stuffed grape leaves, lahmajou (Armenian meat pizza), lavash (flatbread), string cheese, nuts and dried fruit.
I’m certain we were the only kids on the block who were exposed to that much dried fruit. But I’m also certain we were the only ones who opened gifts in January around an Armenian tree decorated with white doves, roses and gold ribbons, then gathered to sing the Armenian rendition of "Silent Night" with Dad on his mandolin.
Now, with my children gathered around our dove-adorned tree, I try to pass on not only the traditions, but the feelings that go with them. Love. The security that comes from knowing where you belong. I want that for my children as we dive ever deeper into the melting pot.
Growing up, we would join the "Big Fat Greek Wedding"-style hordes of Armenian cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents at a relative’s house to break bread. Gagant Baba (Santa Claus) would strut in with his jingle-belled red suit, overworked cotton beard, sunglasses and white gloves and roar in Armenian, "Have you all been good this year?"
To receive your gift you had to kiss Gagant Baba’s hand. It’s been 35 years since this tradition started, but Gagant Baba still comes each year to hand out gifts to a new generation of Armenians, including my children and their many cousins.
In a bow to the melting pot, our children celebrate twice—with modest gifts on Christmas morning and again on Jan. 6. So there are plusses to living a bicultural life. But sometimes it’s tough.
For me, the toughest was attending Armenian school. From age 4, armed only with a backpack and a droopy lunch, I unwillingly attended school for the sixth day in a row. Nose pressed against the window of my parents’ brown-paneled station wagon, I would conjure an ailment en route to the dingy Chicago school. It never worked, but years later, it did make fine dinner party conversation at my expense.
Today, my daughter, Natalie, 8, is attending the new Glenview school for her fifth year. She can write, speak and read Armenian and has never developed any Armenian-related illnesses. Our son David, 4, moaned about a stomach ache once. Like mother, like son. The kids now enjoy Armenian cooking lessons, art, music, history, religion and language studies. Aren, 2, too young for school, bonds with his dad on Saturdays. Right now, he understands only Armenian—the language we speak at home.
Bottom line: It’s important. Assimilation is scary. The generations before us passed down centuries of wisdom, saying, "We fought for our Christianity and our culture." The Turks, during the 1915 Armenian genocide, tried to strip our nation’s identity. My grandmother lost her entire family overnight as she hid in a closet when they stormed her mother’s workplace. The Turks wiped out entire Armenian villages, drove 1.5 million people into the desert without food or water and committed unthinkable acts.
Hitler later used the Armenians as a justification of his campaign against the Jews. "Who now even remembers the Armenians of 1915?" he asked.
Does this one-liner define the root of my—and our—determination? You bet.
Time has passed, but my husband’s and my passion for our Armenian culture has not. And, it seems, we have managed to instill the beginnings of that same passion in our children.
Last summer, I was sweeping the garage when I overheard our young neighbor Lia tell Natalie, "I go to Greek school. It’s hard, but everyone in my family knows Greek; I have to learn it, too."
Natalie replied, "It’s not fair we have to go to school on Saturdays, but it’s different from American school, and I guess … well, I guess it’s all right."
It’s better than all right. But that’s a start.
Diane Ghazarian-Hardy is a wife, mother of three bilingual children and a marketing consultant from the Northwest suburbs.