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Armenian Christmas - January 6

Updated on January 1, 2012
The nativity and Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ - Ancient Armenian Illuminated Manuscript
The nativity and Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ - Ancient Armenian Illuminated Manuscript

A Little Bit of History

I'm a proud American-born Armenian. My grandparents came to this country in the 30's, after surviving the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. They were forced to flee our homeland, and settled at first in Marseilles, France, and then later immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island. So we've been in America for a long time. Although we are well assimilated to American culture, we do still hold on to our faith, language, recipes and traditions. I am an Armenian Orthodox Christian. It's an ancient religion. Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity as its national religion in the year 301 AD.

Now that the December 25th Christmas is over, the radio stations are back to playing their usual playlists, the Christmas decorations are slowly coming down, new year's resolutions are made (and broken), Armenians all around the world are preparing for Armenian Christmas which is celebrated on January 6.

Unlike the Santa Claus, gift-giving, commercial Christmas, it is a sacred time where we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus Christ, but the revelation of God, or Theophany.

Why We Celebrate on January 6

Theophany means "revelation of God," which is what we celebrate in the Armenian Church. We celebrate Christ's baptism in the River Jordan on this day - His baptism marking the beginning of His ministry - with a special ceremony called Choor Ortnemk, or Blessing of the Water. At Christ's baptism, the Holy Trinity was revealed to us in the form of Christ in the river, the Holy Spirit descending upon Him and God's voice proclaiming Christ as His Son. We greet one another with the greeting of "Christos Dzunav Yev Hydnetzav! Ortnyal eh Hydnootiunun Christosee!" (Christ is born and revealed; Blessed is the revelation of Christ!)

So why January 6 and not December 25 like the rest of the world? Well, no one knows the true date of Christ's birth. It's not recorded in the Gospels, but back in the old days, Christian churches all celebrated Christ's birth on January 6. This all changed in the 4th century.

To quote my friend and Cambridge professor Hratch Tchilingirian, " According to Roman Catholic sources, the date was changed from January 6th to December 25th in order to override a pagan feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun which was celebrated on December 25th. At the time Christians used to continue their observance of these pagan festivities. In order to undermine and subdue this pagan practice, the church hierarchy designated December 25th as the official date of Christmas and January 6th as the feast of Epiphany. However, Armenia was not effected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia, on that date, and the fact that the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Roman Church. Thus, remaining faithful to the traditions of their forefathers, Armenians have continued to celebrate Christmas on January 6th until today. "

As an American-born Armenian, my family and I celebrate Christmas on December 25. This day, for us, marks Christ's birth, yes. But like all of America, this is also the day that Santa leaves gifts for good girls and boys, and the day that we exchanges gifts with one another. We put our Christmas tree up in early December (but we leave it up until after the 6th!), and we put up Christmas lights on our house. Family comes over on Christmas day, and we celebrate the day with one another - eating, drinking, sharing stories.

In Armenia, the equivalent of Santa is Father Winter, and he brings gifts on New Year's Eve. There is no corelation between Father Winter and Christmas, and the New Year's Day celebrations in Armenia would be more reminiscent of Christmas celebrations here in the U.S. with family dinners, gifts, and special preparation.

Our January 6 Christmas celebration does not have anything to do with Santa or gift-giving. Rather it is a sacred time of preparation, renewal, fasting and communion. We attend Christmas eve services on the evening of January 5, and then Christmas morning services on the 6th. Church is packed even though it may fall on a weekday. And the holy water is distributed after the blessing. After church, it's a day that we spend with our family. Not exchanging gifts, but enjoying one another - spending time together.

In truth, it doesn't really matter what day you celebrate Christmas - whether December 25th, January 6, July 9, November 2. For the Christian, every day is a day to celebrate Christ's message of love, hope and compassion!

Wishing you all a very blessed Christmas! Cristos dzunav yev hydnetzav!


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      Anna Harmandarian 2 years ago

      Thanks, Anush, for the explanation. I was having this conversation last night with a 15 yr old (she also thought Christ was Armenian). I'm going to forward the article to her. It's funny how things get boiled down to "supposed to" and a sort of superstition. As in, "you're supposed to do X" because "it blesses the house". Your article shows the meaning behind all the "supposed to" that goes with this season.

      There is so, so much more and you and Fr. Vazken really guide the way to learning and owning own traditions.

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      Anbu 3 years ago

      These books are fantastic! You will love rdaieng them yourself or with your little ones. The stories, illustrations, and Armenian isms fit together perfectly. An enjoyable and creative way to keep Armenian language and heritage alive. I own the whole box set and can't wait for the next part of the series to be written.

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      Laurii 3 years ago

      I love these books! As a non-Armenian speaking paernt these books have not only been engaging and entertaining for my children, but educational for us as well. My kids get a kick out of listening to their mom speak Armenian words and look forward to reading as many books as we can in one night! Thanks for bridging the gap!

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      Tamela fish 5 years ago

      I thought this article was well written and appreciate how the history of many cultures is the history of America.

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      Kord Taylor 5 years ago

      Great article! My wife and part of her family is Armenian and it is a great culture. Thanks again for writing this.

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      Fr. Vazken 5 years ago

      Thanks Ahnoosh for this concise explanation and your reflections on the Feast. As for the Serbs, Russians, et al, theirs is a matter of being on a different calendar. There are 13 days difference twixt the Julian and Gregorian calendars. So Dec 25 + 13= Jan 7; and in Jerusalem Armenians celebrate on Jan 6 + 13 = Jan 19. Bottom line, your conclusion is on target - EVERYDAY is a celebration. Thanks.

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 5 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for outlining the different festivities. It's intriguing to know about the different traditions. There is still some evidence here in Ireland of the 6th of January celebration as an acknowledgement of the arrival of the Magi and the Feast of the Epiphany(the realisation of Jesus as the Son of God).

      Happy New Year!

    • Ahnoosh profile image

      Ahnoosh 5 years ago from Southern California

      Thank you, Art Girl. My husband is Serbian Orthodox, and they celebrate on January 7. I'm not sure about the Russian Orthodox, but we're all around the same time. : )

    • Art Girl 27 profile image

      Art Girl 27 5 years ago from East Coast USA

      I really liked this article, very explanatory and open, friendly, welcoming to your faith! My bro-in-law is Russian in ancestry and I believe Russian Orthodox church members also celebrate on 1/06. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!