The Armenian Apostolic Church still uses the old ‘Julian’ Calendar. Thus, Christmas is celebrated on January 6th. The Christmas holiday season starts on New Year’s Eve (December 31st) and continues until the old Julian calendar’s New Year’s Eve on January 13th.
Some people do celebrate on December 25th, but Soorb Stepanos Day (St Steven’s day), not Christmas, unless, of course, they are Catholic. In most other countries St Stephen’s day is on December 26th or Boxing Day! In Armenian, Happy/Merry Christmas is Shnorhavor Amanor yev Surb Tznund (Շնորհավոր Ամանոր և Սուրբ Ծնունդ).
Historically, all Christian churches celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6th until the fourth century. 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. Armenia not being a satellite of Rome, was exempt from the change.
Traditionally, Armenians fast during the week leading up to Christmas. Devout Armenians may even refrain from food for the three days leading up to the Christmas Eve, in order to receive the Eucharist on a “pure” stomach.
Santa Claus/Gaghant Baba / Kaghand Papa traditionally comes on New Year’s Eve (December 31st) because Christmas Day itself is thought of as more of a religious holiday in Armenia. People believed that the doors of other “worlds” would open on December 31 and that they could tell the future, and that could even be seen in the pastries. If it became too puffy, it would be a good year.
Christmas Eve is particularly rich in traditions. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Families start by cleaning their houses from top to bottom in anticipation of the local priest who visits each home to bless it with salt and water. Seeds of lentils, chickpeas, or wheat are placed on cotton balls and allowed to sprout so that families are reminded of the rebirth of life that comes in the spring.
Families gather for the Christmas Eve dinner (khetum, Խթում), which generally consists of: rice, fish, braided bread, basturma, beureg, soudjoukh, bean salads, and yogurt/wheat soup (tanabur, թանապուր). For New Years, instead of the pig thigh, which has become trendy these days, Armenians would place the “amitch”, which is a stuffed bird hanging in an oven (“tonir”). Dessert includes dried fruits and nuts, including sharots, which consists of whole shelled walnuts threaded on a string and encased in grape jelly, bastukh (a paper-like confection of grape jelly, cornstarch, and flour), figs, pomegranates, and anoushabour, a pudding made from wheat, berries and apricots, This lighter menu is designed to ease the stomach off the week-long fast and prepare it for the rather more substantial Christmas Day dinner. Children take presents of fruits, nuts, and other candies to older relatives.
Food plays a large role in Armenian Christmas trees and ornamentation. Fruits are often hung on trees along with the white doves that symbolize peace and golden bows for decoration. Ribbons in the three colors of the Armenian flag also garland the Christmas tree; red for the blood that has been shed for the country, orange for the rich land, and blue for the sky that watches over it.
During the holiday season, most homes feature a nativity scene. Children hang handkerchiefs from their roofs in the hopes that they will be filled with fried wheat, raisins, and coins. Children sing carols to passersby from the rooftops, chanting, “Rejoice and be glad! Open your bag and fill our handkerchiefs. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” These carols are also sung by groups who go house to house, takign with them the bread blessed by the priest called a nshkhar. On New Years Eve their wishes are fulfilled when Gaghant Baba, the Christmas Father, visits them to distribute gifts.