Armenia, Christmas in

Armenia, Christmas in

Most Armenians celebrate Soorp Dznoont - Christmas - on January 6. The reasons for this unusual date emerge quite literally from the pages of ancient history. In the fourth century Roman Catholic Church officials established the date of Christmas as December 25. Before that time the Armenians and some other Christians celebrated the Nativity of Jesus and his baptism on the same day, January 6 (see also Epiphany). Eventually other Christian communities accepted the Roman date for the Nativity. The Armenians, however, never accepted the new date for Christmas and continued to celebrate it on January 6.

When Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, some Armenians rejected the reforms and stuck instead to the old, Julian calendar (see Old Christmas Day). Today Armenians living in the Holy Land still use the Julian calendar to determine their feast days. The Julian calendar is now a full thirteen days ahead of the Gregorian calendar. So, when these Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6 according to the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar counts the day as January 19. In Bethlehem special services for Armenian Christians take place at the Church of the Nativity on January 19.

New Year's Day and Christmas in Armenia

In Armenia children receive gifts on New Year's Day. This custom began during the Soviet era (1917-91), when government officials discouraged the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas. They promoted instead the celebration of New Year's, a secular holiday, and tried to transfer some Christmas customs to this date. For example, they disapproved of Christmas gift bringers such as Baboushka, whose story includes biblical themes. Communist officials attempted to replace her with another popular folk figure, Grandfather Frost, the spirit of winter, who brings gifts to children on New Year's Day. Armenians still give children sweets and toys on New Year's, but since the fall of the Communist government some people have begun to recognize the gift bringer as Father Christmas rather than Grandfather Frost. Adults also exchange gifts on this day. Popular presents include flowers, alcoholic beverages, and items made from silver.

Armenian families prepare for Christmas by giving their homes a thorough cleaning. Housewives find ways to display their fancy needlework and spend hours in the kitchen cooking and baking. "Princely trout," or ishkhanatsoog, is a popular Christmas Eve dish. Christmas church services begin at midnight on Christmas Eve. According to tradition, heralds announce the services, striding through the streets with stout staves, chanting, "Today is a great day of the feast of the birth of Jesus, Good News! O ye good Christians, come to the holy church."

Church services are also held on Christmas Day, January 6. These services feature a ceremony known as the Blessing of the Waters, which commemorates Jesus' baptism. The priest uses a wand made from basil leaves to sprinkle water on the congregation. After church Armenians pay visits to friends and neighbors. A large family meal follows, at which close relatives, distant relatives, friends, and even strangers are welcome. Gifts of money and clothing are distributed after dinner. Then children grab handkerchiefs and band together in small groups that scurry up to the rooftops to sing:

Rejoice and be glad Open your bag And fill our handkerchiefs Hallelujah, hallelujah.

People who hear their cries offer them coins, nuts, and fruit.

Further Reading

Kasbarian, Lucine. Armenia. New York: Dillon Press, 1998. Terjimanian, Hagop. Feasts and Holidays of the Armenian People. Santa Monica, Calif.: Abril Bookstore, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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