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Armenian Christmas - January 6
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!