Armenian Traditions- Christmas Celebrations

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.

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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.

More information:
http://suite101.com/article/an-armenian-christmas-a34744
http://www.expatclic.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=656:christmas-celebrations-in-the-armenian-diaspora&catid=56:general-articles-on-expatriation
http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=armenian-christmas—21-centuries-of-tradition-2011-01-04
http://ditord.com/2012/01/07/the-armenian-christmas-and-new-year-controversy/
http://blog.arpinegrigoryan.com/2009/01/new-year-celebrations-armenian-way.html

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12 thoughts on “Armenian Traditions- Christmas Celebrations”

  1. To be clear the Armenian Church celebrates the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6. In the Holy Land the Armenian Church uses the Julian calendar, which currently lags behind the Gregorian calendar by 13 days. That’s why in Bethlehem Armenians have this celebration on January 19.
    According to our calendar Christmas is an 8 day feast (as Easter is a 40 day feast). Thus our Christmas is celebrated from January 6-13. (This Christmas octave acc to Julian calendar Jan 6-13 falls on new calendar Jan 19-26). As time goes on the gap will increase between the calendars.

  2. Hello. Thank you for a great post of Armenian Christmas traditions. Though I am thankful you are writing about our rich culture it would be great if you would please reference where you received your images or inquire permission to post images from the sources you received them from. The photo you posted of my grandma inspecting the choreg came from my personal blog. Please reference, ask permission to use these photos or take them down.

  3. Tamar, the explanation you provide in the third paragraph is generally correct (re: Jan 6 date for the Nativity of Christ). However, the first paragraph (and especially the first sentence) of the article is wrong, and actually contradicts the correct information you provide later. We do not use the Julian calendar, and it has nothing to do with why we celebrate the birth of Christ on Jan. 6.

    Thanks,

      1. Tamar, thank you for this blog. Its good to reach out and educate people about our traditions. I would like to reiterate what Armen commented. The Armenian Church’s celebration of the Nativity and Theophany of Christ on January of 6th is independent of questions regarding the Julian Calendar. The Armenian Church has always celebrated Christmas on January 6.

        With regard to your comment, the Armenian Church doesn’t currently use the Julian Calendar outside of the Holy Land. The liturgical calendar of the Church uses the modern revised calendar.

        As I mentioned, the Holy Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem still uses the Julian Calendar, and as such, according to the modern calendar it occurs later in January (http://www.armenianchurchwd.com/news/christmas-according-to-the-julian-calendar/).

        I know its confusing. Thanks again for your blog.

        God bless and Merry Christmas!

      2. hmmm…. Then the newspapers covering this issue are incorrect.. It was actually what wewere taught when younger as well… how does that explain celebrating till the 13th though?

        Ps: Thank you for you comments!

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