While cutting and bagging bunches of large green grapes Saturday morning, 89-year-old Bob Tusan grins as he shares a star quality of his favorite fruit.
“When you eat grapes, they make you younger,” says the third-generation grape farmer as he works alongside 20 others behind Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in downtown Fresno.
The group is preparing for Sunday’s 102nd annual Armenian Grape Blessing at the California Armenian Home in southeast Fresno, where grapes will be the centerpiece of the popular festival that includes traditional Armenian food, music and dancing.
A service, food, music, dancing — what else can people want?
Rev. Vahan Gosdanian
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After the blessing, 1,200 pounds of grapes filling 60 boxes will be for sale.
“A lot people, they don’t eat any grapes until they’ve been blessed,” Tusan says.
Has he been waiting?
A man beside him quips a warning, “Don’t lie, don’t lie.”
“I got to taste them,” Tusan follows, smiling, “to see if they are ripe.…When they’re ripe, then we bless them.”
I love to eat them, and they taste better when they’re blessed.
The origins of the grape blessing go back to ancient Armenia, Rev. Vahan Gosdanian says, where priests held solemn ceremonies in vineyards around harvest time.
“During the prayer, we bless all the crops, but they chose the grape because the grape is considered the queen of all the fruits,” Gosdanian says.
This royal designation is linked to Jesus Christ giving wine to his disciples during the Last Supper, he says, and statements that Christ made like, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Levon Baladjanian, the festival’s chairman, says he sees grapes as the symbol of Armenia, “the homeland,” along with being the staple of Armenian-American farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Of the grape blessing, he says, “I think it gives people the feeling that the harvest is like the springing of a new life for the year, and that’s why you always hope the harvest is successful and on time.”
It’s an occasion for spiritual lifting.
Rev. Vahan Gosdanian
As California’s drought drags on, Baladjanian says the grape blessing is only growing in importance.
“There are a lot more prayers for the farmers.”
Tusan and his Sanger neighbor for the past 76 years, Jack Bedoian, are among those whose grapes are suffering. Tusan had to drill deeper wells and now only waters every other row of grapes.
“So, we’ve got problems,” he says. “It’s all bad.”
Of the grape blessing, he adds, “As you get older, it has more meaning to you.”
Though around a quarter of his age, 23-year-old Andrew Esguerra also finds deep meaning in grape blessing.
“Like the vine replenishes the grapes, it’s kind of like God feeding us through our faith,” Esguerra says.
The root of the festivities for Gosdanian lies in giving thanks to God for his many blessings.
“We enjoy God’s blessing every day. We just have to count them,” he says. “Like they say, ‘Just count your blessings.’ You just have to see them. They are all around us, every minute, blessings and miracles.”
For Gosdanian, one of those joys is living in the Valley.
“It’s the world capital of grapes,” he says, “so we are blessed.”
If you go
There is no fee to enter the Armenian Grape Blessing and Food Festival, which begins with the Divine Liturgy church service at 10 a.m. Sunday at the California Armenian Home, 6720 E. Kings Canyon Road. The grape blessing will be held outside at 11:30 a.m. Food and drink will be available for purchase at noon and traditional Armenian music by Richard Hagopian and his band will commence around 1 p.m. The event is run by Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. St. Paul Armenian Church will host another grape blessing and festival next Sunday, Aug. 16, at the same location from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.