At Armenian Churches, a distinct observance today

Today the Armenian Church, one of the most ancient branches of Christianity, celebrates the birth of Jesus. One wonders, admittedly a bit fancifully, if there is a lesson in the Armenian practice for the many Christians who desperately wish that the religious meaning of Jesus’ birth could be rescued from angry culture wars and commercial frenzy.

For the Armenian Church, today’s holy day is the Feast of the Theophany. Other Christians will also be celebrating Theophany as a major religious feast today or, in some of the Western churches, where the day is commonly known as Epiphany, tomorrow. But over the centuries the focus of the day has come to differ within the different strands of Christianity.

What is common to all of them in its celebration is captured in the derivation of the feast’s name from Greek, combining “theos” or “god” with “phainein” meaning “to show forth”. Thus “Theophany” means “divine manifestation”. [“Epiphany” is simply “manifestation”].

In the East, the Orthodox churches, which do not include the Armenian, place their focus on the manifestation of Jesus as God’s son when, as related in three of the four Gospels, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. In the West, the focus has come to be the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles symbolized by the visit of the gift-bearing Magi.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the many manifestations of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Mary right through his first miracle, at the wedding feast in Cana, and of course including his birth, were celebrated together, at least in some parts of the East, and especially on January 6. In the absence of any scriptural basis for precisely dating these events, that day emerged for symbolic reasons, probably related to the Egyptian calendar that placed the winter solstice at this time.

In the fourth century, however, the birth of Jesus was increasingly celebrated separately on December 25, first in Rome and later in the East. Again, most scholars attribute this to a Christian effort either to appropriate or to supplant the religious themes of the imperial Roman cult of the sun, which was in turn related to the dating of the solstice by the Roman, or Julian, calendar.

Only the Armenians, who were not part of the Roman Empire and therefore not faced with a competing imperial cult, never accepted December 25 or in fact any separate date for celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Instead, the Armenian Church maintained in the one Feast of Theophany the linkage of Jesus’ birth, which will be emphasized in today’s services, and his baptism, to be emphasized tomorrow, when a cross will be immersed in water. Indeed, the liturgy retains echoes of the whole series of “theophanies,” or divine manifestations.

Please Note > The story of dates for celebrating Jesus’ birth is further confused by the fact that some parts of Eastern Orthodox Christianity still follow the Julian calendar in their Church life rather than the 16th-century reformed Gregorian calendar. By the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on the modern calendar’s January 7 and its Eve on January 6, while Theophany comes 12 days later, on the modern January 19. In any event, these Orthodox Churches celebrate the two feasts, marking birth and baptism, on separate days.

Do Armenian Christians in the United States celebrate the December 25 holiday with gifts, Christmas trees and all the rest? Yes, they do, especially those here for generations, said the Very Rev. Vahan Hovhanessian, pastor of Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, Queens, although there is also a custom, carried over from the Middle East, of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve.

But Armenians maintain a clear mental distinction between the American culture’s Christmas, Father Vahan said, and the Armenian Church’s religious celebration of Christ’s birth on Theophany. Armenians churches will be packed today, he said, people will be lined up on the sidewalk outside Holy Martyrs.

Other Christian leaders may observe this distinction with a degree of envy. Many say that they feel trapped and wearied not only by the commercialization of Christmas but also by the culture warriors who are eager to embrace that commercialization in a strangely conceived campaign to keep the culture Christian or, as Stephen Colbert might say, “Christianish.”

“Instead of putting the Christ back in Christmas, maybe we should just take him out,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer before Christmas. “In the battle between the Christians and the marketers,” he wrote, “the marketers have won, decisively.”

Father Martin’s “modest proposal” was to “give Christmas to the corporations” and find a new date for a “New Christmas”, “a nice, quiet, shopping-free, religiously grounded holiday.” His suggestion? “Around, say, June,” when Flag Day would be its only serious competition.

But maybe the Armenian celebration of Theophany is more promising. Tied as the feast is to the whole panoply of what Christians hold as divine manifestations, it might prove easier to keep the “theos” in Theophany than to keep Christ in Christmas.

Not that anyone should ever underestimate the power of the marketers. How long would it be, after all, before advertisements began appearing on January 7: “Only 364 shopping days till Theophany”?

Illuminating the ancient feast of Epiphany

Christian traditions mark Magi’s visit, burning of greens, baptism of Jesus.

According to the traditional Christian calendar, today marks “Twelfth Night,” the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. Not many people still celebrate with 12 days of gift-giving from December 25 to January 5, as in the famous Christmas carol. But many churches do observe the ancient feast of Epiphany on January 6, a holiday associated in Western churches with the coming of the Magi to honor the infant Jesus.

“The story of the wise men will be done this Sunday in Sunday school,” said the Rev. Bill King, deputy to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. “Many churches are leaving the creche up through this Sunday.” Tonight’s the church-sanctioned time to take down Christmas decorations, King said.

“Twelfth Night was the burning of the greens; you took the Christmas wreaths down and burned them,” he said. “In the old English tradition you’d have a bonfire on Twelfth Night.”

While Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and other Western churches celebrate the coming of the Magi to adore Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany. Icons representing the baptism of Jesus are on display, while the feast is called Theophania [in Greek].

Tonight is the Eve of Epiphany. “That’s the completion of the 12 days of Christmas,” said the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, pastor of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. “Traditionally, the 12 days of Christmas is not the 12 days before Christmas, it’s the 12 days following. We’re still singing carols.” Western churches also remember the baptism of Jesus during Epiphany and have more baptisms at that time. This Sunday will be popular for baptisms, King said.

On Saturday, Orthodox churches will have blessing-of-the-water services to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

“Waters are blessed and people drink of the water,” said the Rev. Paul Costopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross, which will bless waters during its 8:30 a.m. service Saturday. “During the Epiphany season, throughout January, the priest visits the homes of parishioners and blesses homes with the holy water.”

In some Episcopal churches, youth dress up for Epiphany as kings and symbolically bring forth the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh. “In our home, the creche stays up until 12th night,” King said.

On Sunday, Orthodox will also celebrate the annual feast day of John the Baptist. “John the Baptist was a major player in Epiphany,” Costopoulos said. “He was the forerunner chosen by God to baptize Jesus.”

At St. Symeon Orthodox church, the 6:30 p.m. service tonight and the Saturday 10 a.m. service will include the blessing of water. “We bless the water by placing the cross in the water,” Fecanin said. “It’s the image of Christ entering the water.”

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas celebrations in America took place sporadically between December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, and January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. The earlier onset of U.S. Christmas celebrations and decorations in the modern commercial era may create a sense of anxiety for the holiday to be over. After a Christmas shopping season that for many Americans begins right after Thanksgiving, people tire of the holiday season and are ready to move on.

“Epiphany is a major feast day according to the teachings of the church,” Costopoulos said. “It’s gotten out of kilter because of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. It’s become so overwhelming, the focus is on that.”

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Brookside observes January 7 as Christmas, following the Russian tradition. In Bethlehem, celebrations of the birth of Jesus extend to the end of January. Around the world, Christmas is celebrated as late as January 27 in the Coptic Church of Egypt. “There are different traditions, and Bethlehem picks up on each one of them,” King said.

“Epiphany was one of the earliest Christian feast days,” King said. “It celebrated the manifestation of the Christ, in Jesus, the divinity of Christ. God entering into humanity. It was god in our midst, god revealed through Jesus. That’s Epiphany, an awakening, an understanding of something different. It was only later that Christmas was chosen as December 25.”

In early church tradition, Epiphany celebrated the Nativity and the appearance of Christ at the River Jordan for baptism. Churches usually celebrate Epiphany on January 6 or the Sunday between January 2-8. The Feast of Epiphany begins a season that continues until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter.

The visit of the Magi is connected to Christmas, although if the visit is historical, the Magi would likely have arrived long after the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew says that when the Magi visited Herod and told him of the birth of a new King, Herod responded by ordering the slaughter of male children under 2 years old, which would suggest a long lapse of time between the appearance of the star and the arrival of the Magi.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “The job of the church is to teach the sacred truths behind the story,” King said. “That’s our job.”

Treats of the Epiphany > Recipes I

Three Kings Day marks the end of the Christmas season and gives us one more chance to celebrate with delicious foods from diverse cultures.

Twelfth Night dinner, Feast of the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings or Three Kings Day, whatever you choose to call it, the celebration officially marks the end of the holidays.

These festivities, which cross many ethnic lines, recall the visit of the three wise men, or Magi, at Christ’s birth. For home cooks, it’s a time to revel in a culinary diversity with treasured dishes and traditions.

Three Kings Day is observed in Spanish-speaking countries as well as in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and England. Each country has its own tradition for observances, but most people celebrate with family, church and community gatherings.

Western Christians celebrate the Epiphany, when the three wise men visited baby Jesus, on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. In Spanish-speaking cultures, the holiday is called Three Kings Day, and it is also known as Twelfth Night.

On this evening, Puerto Rican children often leave grass under their beds for the kings’ camels. While the kids sleep, parents replace the grass with toys. The practice comes from the story about the wise men bringing treasures to the stable where Jesus was born.

In Europe, as far back as the 4th century, a King’s Day cake of some kind was part of the celebration. In 18th-century France, the cake of choice was a flaky pastry, gateau des Rois (cake of kings), filled with almond pastry cream. Today the most popular version, even in France, is a variation on brioche, a sweet dough embellished in whichever way the baker sees fit.

In Mexico, it is a time for giving presents to children and for having a merienda, or snack, of rosca de reyes, a sweet yeast bread made in the form of a ring. Hot chocolate is a favorite accompaniment.

Hidden in the dough is a token. The person who finds it has to give a party on Candelaria, or Candlemass, on February 2, a religious celebration of hope and light.

In Greek cookery, a sweetened, braided loaf is served during the Christmas season leading up to Epiphany, which is called “Christopsomo” or “Christ’s Bread”. But there is no token tucked inside the dough. A coin is inserted into the “Vasilopita” or “Saint Basil’s Cake” which is served on New Year’s Eve. Instead, the Christmas bread echoes northern Europe’s traditional fruit-studded cake.

Because Twelfth Night concludes the Christmas holidays, people traditionally have marked it with large gatherings and feasts to close the season. Today’s recipes will get you started on that menu.

And don’t take off those party shoes so quickly, Twelfth Night is also the official start of the Mardi Gras Season or the Carnival Season!

Families continue Christmas traditions from native countries

DeBry family wants their five children to enjoy the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas as much as they did when he was growing up. 

The five children of the DeBry family clunk around in their wooden shoes until its time to line them up in anticipation of the arrival of Sinterklaas. “We set out all our shoes and he puts goodies in them,” explained one of the kids. After the children are herded into another room, the DeBry parents, begin filling the shoes with authentic Dutch chocolate. It’s a tradition that have celebrated since their childhood, and have memories of growing up with the Dutch traditions, food and songs of the holidays. Although they are third-generation Americans, every December 5, Sinterklaas visits their home. Their ancestors are all from Holland and Germany they said. 

In the Netherlands, on the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child who has been good in the past year. According to tradition, Sinterklaas wears a red bishop’s dress and rides a white horse over the rooftops. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. He’s a helper, similar to elves. He’s also the one who keeps the kids in line. Children put their shoes out, along with a carrot or some hay for Sinterklaas’ horse. The next day, they’ll find chocolate in their shoes, supposedly thrown down the chimney by Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas.

Because they recently traveled to Holland, they returned with enough goodies to fill their kids’ wooden shoes for days, chocolate coins, chocolate cookies, chocolate letters, chocolate eggs, gingerbread and stroopwafels (syrup waffles). Although they celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas, they also celebrate Christmas in the traditional way.

For a few years, Humberto and his friends celebrated the true Puerto Rican tradition of parranda, Christmas caroling Puerto-Rican style. During a parranda, friends gather late in the evening to go from one house to another singing and playing traditional songs. But because the Hispanic population is so spread out in the city, they had to travel in cars instead of on foot, and they kept getting lost in the dark. Humberto, who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in the US for 22 years, along with his family and friends still celebrate the parranda, but they contain it to one house now.

“A parranda is when a group of friends get together in one house and the friends, the musicians, select a number of friends they’re going to visit that night. They will go out as a group. It’s supposed to be a surprise,” he said. “They’ll come to their door and start playing. The folks will acknowledge them by turning the light on. They’ll sing some more and the door will open and the people will go in, and they’ll be greeted with food and refreshments and they’ll sing more.”

Parrandas start late in order to surprise and wake the sleeping friends. Some are prepared, sometimes slight hints are given. The musicians are served a traditional holiday beverage called coquito and made of coconut milk and rum. They’ll also be served arroz con dulce, a dessert made of rice cooked with coconut milk, sugar and cinnamon; and pasteles, made using mashed green bananas where the dough is filled with meat, potatoes and spices and wrapped in the leaves of the banana tree. One tradition is the family who receives the party at midnight will prepare chicken soup for the folks to gain strength. Parrandas usually start in early December, with musicians visiting four or five houses a night, and continue until January 6, Three Wise Men’s Day, also known as Three Kings Day and the Epiphany.

In Puerto Rico, children traditionally receive gifts from their parents on Christmas Day. “The presents were never put under the tree,” Humberto said. “The presents appeared on Christmas. When I grew up, they just magically appeared on that day so it was a big thing to wake up. We would wake up at four o’clock in the morning. It was the excitement of, ‘The toys are here. The presents are here.’ When our children were little, we did that.” Presents from other relatives aren’t given until January 6, he said. Puerto Rico, being part of the United States, does recognize Santa Claus; although, it can be tough to explain to Puerto Rican children why Santa travels through their snowless, warm country on a sled.

The main Christmas celebration in Mexico is the posada, a religious procession that reenacts the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus. In Mexico, posadas are a series of visits traditionally paid to different friends during the days before Christmas in which the celebrants go from house to house looking for shelter.

Morales family, including their three young children, participate in a posada every Christmas Eve, although on a smaller scale. Instead of moving from house to house, they contain their celebration to one house. “Our family gets together, my sisters and my parents and my dad’s family,” they said. “There’s about 30 of us. We just do it at the one house where we’re celebrating Christmas. In Mexico, they go house to house. Posadas last a week to 10 days, traditionally. In Mexico, I think they do a different house every night. That’s why it’s more than a week.” Morales, grew up with the traditions their parents brought from Mexico.

The posada celebration continues after the participants are finally admitted into a house. “After they give us a place to stay, you have baby Jesus in the blanket and everybody is around him, and we sing. We do that first and then we open up gifts. After we sing, we have candy called colacion. It’s candy that kind of looks like rocks because it’s all different shapes and different colors and different flavors. We may have tostadas and pozole, it’s hominy in a special broth. You can use pork meat or chicken. A lot of places will serve different kinds of punch,” they said.

Morales’ family will open presents from family on Christmas Eve, and Santa leaves presents for the youngsters to open on Christmas Day. In Mexico, it’s more tradition for the Three Wise Men to bring gifts on January 6. You’re supposed to put a shoe by the door and the Three Wise Men bring presents. 

Christmas around the world > traditions

Here are some Christmas traditions celebrated in other countries.

• Australia > Christmas in Australia is often very hot. A traditional meal includes a turkey dinner, with ham and pork. A flaming Christmas plum pudding is added for dessert. Australian families and tourists often celebrate Christmas at the beach or pool. Carols by candlelight is held on Christmas Eve, and tens of thousands of people gather in Melbourne to sing their favorite Christmas songs.

• Belgium > In Belgium, there are two Santa Claus figures, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel. St Nicholas visits those who speak the Waloon language, twice. He first arrives on December 4, to find out which children have been good and which have been bad. On December 6, if a child is good, he returns with presents. Bad children receive twigs inside their shoes or in small baskets. Pere Noel and his companion Pere Fouettard visit those who speak French. Good children receive chocolates and candies. Bad children are more likely to receive a handful of sticks. Christmas for both gift-givers is December 6, the feast of St Nicholas.

• China > The Christian children of China decorate trees with colorful ornaments. They also hang muslin stockings hoping that Christmas Old Man will fill them with gifts and treats. The Chinese Christmas trees are called Trees of Light.

• India > Christians in India decorate banana or mango trees. They also light small oil-burning lamps as Christmas decorations and fill their churches with red flowers. They give presents to family members and baksheesh, or charity, to the poor people. In southern India, Christians put small clay lamps on the rooftops and walls of their houses at Christmas, just as the Hindus do during their Diwali festival.

• Nicaragua > Christmas begins officially on Dec. 6 in Nicaragua, but actual activities begin on December 16. Every home contains a manger scene. From December 16 until the Christmas Eve Mass, prayer is held each evening in the home, followed by refreshments and the singing of carols. Christmas Day is celebrated with much fun and eating, fireworks and dancing.

• Russia > In Russia the religious festival of Christmas is being replaced by the Festival of Winter, but there are some traditions that are still kept up in some parts of the country. In the traditional Russian Christmas, which is observed on January 7, special prayers are said and people fast, sometimes for 39 days, until Christmas Eve, which is January 6 in Russia. On Christmas Day, hymns and carols are sung. People gather in churches, which have been decorated with the usual Christmas trees or Yelka, flowers and colored lights. Babushka is a traditional Christmas figure who distributes presents to children.

• Syria > In Syria on December 6, a special Mass is held in churches in honor of St. Nicholas Thaumaturgus. On Christmas Eve everyone in the family carries a lit candle to an unlit bonfire outside their house. The youngest child, usually the son of the family, reads the Christmas story, after which the bonfire is lit. The way the flames spread shows the luck of the house in the coming year. When the fire burns, psalms are sung, and when it sinks, everyone leaps over the embers making wishes. Early on Christmas morning everyone goes to Mass. It is on New Year’s Day that children receive presents.

• Wales > Every year at Christmas, carol singing is the most enjoyed activity. Caroling is called eisteddfodde and is often accompanied by a harp. Christmas is spent with lots of people gathering in the public square for the announcement of who has won the prize for submitting the best music for a new carol. Taffy making is one of the most important of the Welsh Christmas. The Welsh people maintain most of the traditional customs associated with England.


Pagan roots run deep beneath our Christmas rituals

Cakes and onion skins > folk customs during the preparation for Christmas.

We are now deep into Advent, a special time that takes its name from the Latin ad-venio, “to come to.” It is a period of expectant waiting for Christmas, which begins with the Sunday nearest to the November 30 Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, and embraces four Sundays. During this time, the faithful prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love and, in the western churches, Advent marks the start of the ecclesiastical year.

It is not clear exactly when the celebration of Advent was first introduced into the Church, but some theories suggest it is related to the feast of the winter solstice that was dear to our pagan ancestors. This could explain why several strange folk customs still survive in this period of preparation for Christmas, one such being Luca’s Day, a popular festival held on December 13, and a remnant from our sun-worshipping past.

In fact, all the religious feasts around the winter solstice seem to combine elements of the sacred and “profane”, even Christmas itself. As found in texts from the year 1038, the late Old English term for Christmas was Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, but the Hungarian name for the same festival seems to have very different roots. Linguists agree that Karácsony comes from the Slavic word korcun, which means “passage” and refers to the passing of the winter solstice, and the beginning of a new cycle.

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of what we know as the Christian Church, however. The first theologians ridiculed the feast: in the Scriptures it is written that only sinners, but not Saints, celebrate their birthdays. The very first evidence of the feast comes from Egypt in about 200 AD, and placed Christ’s birthday on the equivalent of May 20 in the 28th year of the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus.

Only from the fourth century on did Western calendars make December 25 Christ’s birthday, upon an order of Pope Julius I, perhaps in the hope of imbuing the long-held pagan rituals of winter solstice with Christian meaning.

The Armenian Christian rite still ignores the December festival, for Armenians the Lord’s birthday is on January 6, when we celebrate Epiphany, and some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 in the old Julian calendar. But is our December 25 Christmas celebration really a “baptism” of an archaic pagan feast?

Ancient midwinter festivals may well have guided the choice of the December date: in the late Roman Empire, people marked Natalis Invicti or Sol Invuctus (“the Unconquered Sun”) at the winter solstice, to celebrate the fact that the darkest days were over and the hours of sunlight were again increasing.

Natalis Invicti, which was celebrated on December 25, has a strong claim to be the direct ancestor of our Christmas Day, and was an important event for Roman adherents of the popular cult of Mithras (who, some scholars note, bears similarities to the figure of Christ). For Romans, December 17 also marked the start of the great Saturnalia festival, commemorating the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn.

The winter solstice, then, was an important moment in ancient culture – the New Year, and the new life cycle, began here, and besides the Natalis Invicti of Mithraism and the Roman Saturnalias, we should mention the Yule feast celebrated at this time by Norse and German pagans.

Popular beliefs can never correspond exactly to the calendars of official religion, but it is surely not by chance that the most important pagan rituals coincide with the time that the birth of the Lord is drawing near.

The most important evidence of these relics from the old sun-worshipping religions is to be found nowadays in Luca’s Day. Celebrated in many cultures all over the world, Luca’s Day in Hungary is known as the most important feast of the witches, after Saint George’s Day.

It cannot be accidental the Church set the Day of St Lucia, or St Lucy, on December 13. Before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, it fell on December 21, the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Consequently, that night was the longest of the year, when evil spirits and witches could do their worst. And it can also surely be no accident that the name itself, Lucia, Luca, Lucy, has its roots in lux, the Latin word for “light”.

St Lucia was a virgin martyr who, according to one legend, withstood such extremes of torture that she was suspected of being a witch, and so was ultimately burnt to death, but perished only after completing a final prayer.

HUNGARIAN FOLK CUSTOM > In Hungarian folk custom, Luca’s Day is still a time for guessing the future by various methods, and performing rituals to gain good luck. Women’s work is forbidden on Luca’s Day, except for acts aimed at assuring fertility and richness the following year, or in the next cycle, as the old pagans had it.

There is also a tradition of starting to build a so-called Luca’s Chair on December 13, and to add a little bit each day so that it is ready in exactly 12 days, on December 25. At Christmas midnight mass, the person who sits on the chair can supposedly see through disguises and reveal the witches that are hiding in the community. Besides revealing witches, the  tradition warns who might “steal” the cow’s milk, the chicken’s eggs, or put a spell on people, it is very common on Luca’s Day to start trying to guess the identity of one’s future husband. Girls make 12 cakes, with a man’s name in each, and they eat one every day, their future husband’s name will be the one contained in the last remaining cake.

Luca’s Day symbolizes the rebirth of nature: the partial end of the old world, and the beginning of the new. Very similar to the old pagan solar rituals, it is a feast that holds the promise of new life. The 12 days from Luca’s Day to Christmas can even be seen as a micro-year: from the events of these days, Hungarians forecast how the following year’s months will be.

Among the Hungarians of Transylvania, a peculiar method of weather divination is still popular. They lay out 12 layers of onion, corresponding to the months of the year to come, and they put salt on each piece. If the salt dissolves, that corresponding month will be wet, tradition says. It is just another ancient ritual that adds to the richness of this strange and special time.

Christmas controversy?

The dream of Christian children worldwide: Jerusalem celebrates three Christmases! That statement is, of course, a bit misleading. The traditional Christian communities, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, January 6 and January 19 respectively, negating the possibility of Santa coming thrice to the same child.

These faith traditions each bring their own customs to the holiday, but share a common focus on the mystery and glory of the event, deemphasizing the commercial aspects so prevalent in the West.

Most Europeans and Americans are unfamiliar with the Armenian Church, which is ironic, because Armenia officially adopted the faith in 301 CE (about 25 years before Rome), and has maintained an emphasis on the Christ-mass, without the more secular gift-giving.

Bishop Aris Shirvanian, spokesman for the Armenian Patriarchate, explains why the Western churches were more influenced by pagan practices surrounding Christmas.

Christmas parties and gift-giving stem from “merrymaking inherited from the old pagan worship of the sun god – Saturn” he said. “Saturnalia was celebrated on December 25 in Rome, while Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6. The pope of the day, Sylvester, in order to abolish the pagan feast, moved the celebration of Jesus’s birthday from January 6 to December 25, but the Armenian church had no reason to change the date because there was no pagan feast in Armenia on December 25.”

Since the Armenians maintain the ancient date of Christmas as well as the old (Julian) calendar, 13 days are added to January 6, postponing Armenian Christmas until January 19 on the modern (Gregorian) calendar.

The Armenians focus on astvadz-a-haytnootyoon – revelation, since the January 6 holy day celebrated both Jesus’s birth and baptism. Many churches still celebrate Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, on January 6.

Since Jesus’s birth and baptism are celebrated together, water is a vital aspect of the Armenian feast. Water, blessed by the Armenian clergy, receives the addition of oil believed to be similar to that which Jesus used to clean the feet of his Apostles, and is distributed to the congregants. The oil additive is said to come from St. Thaddeus, who first preached the gospel in Armenia, and is considered to have healing properties.

On January 18, Christmas Eve, Patriarch Torkam Manogian leaves the Armenian Quarter of the Old City with a large entourage and police escort. In centuries past the horse drawn procession stopped at the Greek Monastery of Mar Elias outside Bethlehem to water the horses and allow devotees to refresh themselves. Modern processions keep that tradition, as the Palestinian Authority assumes responsibility for the procession. Greek Archbishop Aristochos notes that the two governments work diligently to ensure Christmas access to Bethlehem. The Greek Orthodox Church enjoys a similar procession on Christmas Eve.

The procession continues to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where there is an official reception. The congregants enter the Church of the Nativity – shared by the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians – and a mass is held. After a festive supper and rest, the midnight mass begins, concluding at about 3:30 Christmas morning.

The Greek Orthodox were reluctant to join the Western church in celebrating Christmas on December 25, but eventually did so for the sake of unity. Both East and West agreed to celebrate Jesus’s birth in December and his baptism on January 6. Still, Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church clings to the Julian calendar, so when it adds the required 13 days to December 25, it celebrates Christmas on January 7 according to the modern calendar.

A highlight of the Greek Orthodox Christmas season is the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 and a pilgrimage to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Beit Jala. St. Nicholas was a church father born in the late third century who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about 330 CE. Tradition holds that he slept in a cave in Beit Jala while visiting nearby Bethlehem. The church built over that cave commemorates his pilgrimage.

Archbishop Aristochos states that St. Nicholas’s feast day “prepares us for Christmas.” Since St. Nicholas was noted for his kindness and generosity to children, many believe this contributed to the Western tradition of giving gifts on Christmas. Influenced by northern European immigrants to the US, St. Nicholas’s memory eventually morphed into Santa Claus, akin to the Dutch Sinterklaas.

The Greek Orthodox observe a 40-day fast before Christmas. The fast forbids meat, milk and eggs, but allows fish after the first week until the beginning of the last. This culminates with a great feast on Christmas Day including fried fish, asparagus with egg and lemon sauce, bean soup, and honey cake with nuts.

There are a number of beliefs related to the kallikantzaroi – “bad spirits” according to the Archbishop – that are released during Christmas and wreak havoc until January 6, when Epiphany is celebrated.

These spirits are mischievous, toppling things and scaring people. Still, tradition holds that home remedies can be employed to restrain them. Among these is a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Eventually the kallikantzaroi are expelled by the priest on Epiphany as he sprinkles holy water (associated with Jesus’s baptism) around the house.

Like the members of its related liturgical churches, Roman Catholics proceed to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, celebrated December 24. This is the celebration for which Bethlehem is most noted. Whether associated with the church or not, Manger Square fills with thousands. Multitudes of Muslims also come to witness the event.

But in smaller parishes quieter ceremonies occur on Christmas Eve. Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke is guardian of St. John in the Mountains Church, built at the traditional site of John the Baptist’s birth, and on Christmas commemorates the Magnificat – the Virgin Mary’s extended quote in Luke 1.

“Since we’re a very small community,” he says, “it’s extraordinary that on Christmas Eve our church is full of mostly Jewish people. For example, last year I counted only eight Christians present. Since the church is very small, holding about 110 people seated, when I say it was ‘full,’ I mean standing room only. These Jewish people arrive as early as 11:15 for midnight mass. What is really so edifying is that the Jews, predominately young, stand in complete reverence and silence for almost an hour and half. If you compare it to other churches you wouldn’t see such reverence and patience.

“Remember, the mass is celebrated in a foreign language for them, since we celebrate in Italian. The whole ritual is foreign to them, apart from the homily, which is given in English. But they come from as far away as Tel Aviv, and many call in advance to be sure they’ll be here on time. They come because of some sense of mystery or awe of the divine that comes from the ritual, the music, and their memories – transmitted from their parents, perhaps. For us it’s a very uplifting ceremony because of their presence and attitude.”

Fergus says the Israeli presence contributes to the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” that Luke says the angels proclaimed at Jesus’s birth. “This year we are having an Israeli choir sing at midnight mass, and two years ago we had a Southern Baptist from Alabama sing a solo,” he said.

Protestants maintain no official presence in Bethlehem, although many visit for interdenominational “shepherds’ field” services convened by the YMCA in nearby Beit Sahur. Many attend local services in Jerusalem, such as those at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, or at the Baptist Church near the city center.

Lindell Browning is a Nazarene minister living in Jerusalem. Browning’s tradition includes traditional “shepherds’ field” services.

“‘Shepherds’ field’ is wherever the shepherds are in Bethlehem; it’s not a specific field that we know of. There’s no way to know.”

Browning says he and friends read the birth narratives together from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, often asking one of the young people to read the account of angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest.” They sing carols, pray and share thoughts on the Christmas message.

Browning believes that in Jerusalem there is great stress placed on the angels’ declaration to secure peace on earth. “In this area of the world it’s something we pray for, something we want to see happen. Isaiah predicted the coming of a man who would be called the prince of peace, and that’s our declaration: Christ is the prince of peace for the world.”

Among Christians in Jerusalem there is less focus on the commercial aspects of the holiday. “I think there’s much less emphasis on shopping and much more interest in people that are less fortunate than us. There were a couple of years when we gave each other smaller gifts and gave gifts to needy families. There were other years on which we made gifts for each other so we could better give to those in need. Here too [in Jerusalem] there’s much more time because we don’t have the Christmas activities that we would in the States. So we get together with friends and share.”

For the majority of the Israeli population it is a normal work day. Some Jerusalem Christians do put up Christmas trees, as the Israeli government provides trees free. A few shops decorate their windows for the holiday, but for the most part, commercialism is subdued and the season is pared back to its devotional origins.

The Armenians, proceeding into Bethlehem on their Christmas Eve, summarize the motive for the march as they sing joyously “Great and Wonderful Mystery.” Greek Archbishop Aristochos says Christmas is in memory of the event “by which begins our salvation,” while Father Fergus calls for goodwill toward men. The Brownings and friends quietly find a hillside and try to imagine what the shepherds experienced, expressing their devotion in good works.

St. Nicholas would recognize a Jerusalem Christmas. The real Santa Claus: St. Nicholas was born in Patara, a Greek village (now Turkish) in the late third century. Although it’s difficult to distinguish legend from fact, scholars agree on several points about his life.

Nicholas was from a wealthy fishing family and was generous to young people. A story, regarded as accurate in its essence though shrouded in legend, holds that on three different occasions he provided dowries for poor girls, thus saving them from slavery. Tradition maintains that these dowries, tossed in through a window, were bags of gold that landed on stockings or shoes left near the fire to dry. Similar stories tell of Nicholas’s generosity in saving people from starvation.

Due to a wealth of popular support, Nicholas was elected bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early fourth century. About 330 CE he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was there for several weeks, often sleeping in a cave in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church now stands over that cave.

Nicholas died about 350 CE on December 6 – a feast day that was already being celebrated only a few years after his death. Due to the day’s proximity to Christmas, as well as his generosity, Nicholas became caught up in the season’s lore.

Throughout much of Europe alms were given to the poor on this Saint’s day, and children were the special recipients of gifts. Medieval French nuns would distribute candies on December 6.

Nicholas began the transformation into Santa Claus mostly by way of German and Dutch immigrants to North America. Germanic St. Niklaas became Sinterklass, and eventually Santa Claus. Some less desirable aspects of northern European fable may have immigrated as well: His flying reindeer may stem from myths of the Norse god Wodin riding through the sky.

Reformers like Martin Luther tried to stop the metamorphosis, hoping to portray the baby Jesus (Christkindl in German) as the gift giver. Kris Kringle, derived from that German word, is now a synonym for Santa.

Nicholas’s image in Dutch-influenced New York changed from pious churchman to elf-like gift bearer. This picture became formalized by a few poems, notably the Christmas favorite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “The Night before Christmas”) in 1823.

Currently burdened by commercialism, it’s hard to envision Santa’s prototype, the generous and devout Nicholas, making the dangerous trip to the Holy Land and sleeping in a cave in order to worship at the site of the first Christmas.

East is East and West is West: The early church can be roughly divided into East and West. The Eastern church, later Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, maintained different holidays, traditions and even doctrines than the Western church, which remained bound to Rome and the pope. Among the points of disagreement was the proper dating of Jesus’s birth – Christmas Day.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition that a prophet dies on the day of his conception, and the early church applied this formula to Jesus. Eastern and Western churches, through various and often questionable reasoning, determined respectively that Jesus died on April 6 and March 25. The Roman Catholic Church still celebrates the latter date as the Annunciation of the Birth. Adding nine months of pregnancy to those dates results in a December 25 or January 6 Christmas.

Scholars also hold that the December 25 date was especially appealing to the Western church because it replaced the birthday of Sol Invictus (invincible sun). Romans thought that on that day the sun began its ascent and the days began to lengthen. The pagan ceremony contained much revelry, drinking and immorality which the early church couldn’t condone. Sun worship was outlawed under penalty of death, in the hope that worship of the Son would replace it.

Clearly that did occur, but not without echoes of the pagan traditions surviving. Imbibing and, to a lesser degree, gift-giving and holiday lights are related to the pre-Christian feast. Still, the Eastern church maintained the January 6 date and combined it with Epiphany, the day of Jesus’s baptism.

Eventually, under pressure from the Western church as well as its own clergy’s inability to go to both the Jordan River and Bethlehem on the same day, a compromise was reached in the middle of the fifth century. Christmas would be celebrated December 25 and Epiphany on January 6 by both churches. This is simple enough, but when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one, the Eastern church in Jerusalem continued using the old calendar. This results in a January 7 Christmas (December 25 plus 13 days).

Armenians refused the compromise, maintaining both the old January 6 date as well as the Julian calendar. Consequently Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 19 (January 6 plus 13 days).

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