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“Armenian Christmas,” as it is popularly called, is a culmination of celebrations of events related to Christ’s Incarnation. Theophany or Epiphany, or Astvadz-a-haytnootyoon in Armenian, means “revelation of God,” which is the central theme of the Christmas Season in the Armenian Church. During Christmas two major events are celebrated in the church: the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and his Baptism in the River Jordan. The Armenians celebrate this major feast on January 6th.
It is frequently asked why Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on December 25th with the rest of the world. The exact date of Christ’s birth has not been historically established; neither is recorded in the Gospels. However, until the fourth century, all Christian churches celebrated Christ’s Birth on January 6th.
The Church of Rome changed the date from January 6th to December 25th in the fourth century. The change was intended to subdue an ancient pagan feast celebrating the birth of the Sun on December 25th. At the time, Christians also were tempted to participate in these pagan festivities. Thus the church hierarchy decided to celebrate the Birth of Christ on December 25th and the feast of Epiphany on January 6th.
Armenia was not affected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia at the time and the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Church of Rome. Remaining faithful to the tradition of their forefathers, Armenians continue to celebrate Christmas on January 6th until today.
IN THE HOLY LAND
In the Holy Land, the Orthodox churches use the old calendar — the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian, the one we use today — to determine the date of religious feasts. As such, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 19th in Bethlehem.
On the day before Armenian Christmas, January 18th, the Armenian Patriarch together with the clergy and the faithful, travels from Jerusalem to the city of Bethlehem, to the Church of Nativity of Christ, where elaborate and colorful ceremonies take place.
Outside, in the large square of the Church of Nativity, the Mayor of Bethlehem and City officials greet the Patriarch and his entourage. A procession, led by Armenian scouts and their band, brings the Patriarch into the Church of Nativity, while priests, seminarians and the faithful join in the sing of Armenian hymns.
Afterwards, festive services are held in the Cathedral of Nativity all night long and until the next day, January 19th. In recent years, however, as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been less colorful and restrained because of political tensions and security problems in the West Bank.