Armenian, Russian and Greek Christmas traditions

Why Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6 >

The exact date of Jesus’ birth has not been recorded in the Gospels and is not historically known. Despite this mystery date, Christian churches before the fourth century celebrated Jesus’ birthday on January 6.

According to Associate Director of the Eurasia Research Programme at the University of Cambridge Hratch Tchilingirian, Roman Catholic sources hold that the date was changed in the fourth century to December 25 to override a pagan feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun, which was celebrated on December 25.

To undermine this pagan practice, the Church hierarchy designated December 25 as the official date of Christmas and January 6 as the feast of Epiphany.

“However, Armenia was not affected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia on that date, and the fact that the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Roman Church,” Tchilingirian writes. “Remaining faithful to their Church traditions, Armenians continue to celebrate Christmas on January 6th until today.”

The ‘arch-heresy of ecumenism’ >

While Armenians may celebrate Christmas on January 6, Russian Orthodox and other Old Calendarists celebrate it on January 7. Or rather, they celebrate it on January 7 by the Julian calendar, which translates to December 25 on the Gregorian calendar.

In the mid 16th century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent adopted the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world presently uses.

The Eastern Orthodox Church used the Julian calendar all the way up through the early 20th century, after which some of its members, including Greece and Cyprus, moved to a revised version of the old calendar, known as the Revised Julian calendar. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox jurisdiction, as well as a number of other Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Mount Athos, did not adopt the Revised Julian calendar. Along with the majority of Orthodox Christians worldwide, these jurisdictions still use the Julian calendar for religious observation, although all the the countries where Orthodox Christians live have adopted the Gregorian calendar for secular purposes.

In Greece and Cyprus, Old Calendarists maintain that they have not branched off from the mainstream Church not only over a mere calendar. The calendar, in their view, is merely a symptom of what they refer to as the “arch-heresy of ecunemism”.

Honoring their culture

Posted On January 7, 2007

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Valley Armenians mark birth of Jesus on traditional Orthodox date

The Holy Season continued Saturday as members of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in downtown Fresno gathered to celebrate the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Rev. Vahan Gosdanian led the service at one of the city’s oldest Armenian churches before a congregation of more than 200 people.

Orthodox churches such as Holy Trinity are among several in Fresno that recognize January 6 as the day Jesus was born. All Christian churches once celebrated Christmas on January 6. In the fourth century, however, the Roman Catholic Church changed the date to December 25 to override a pagan feast. In Armenia, Christian worshippers didn’t make the change.

Today, local Armenians have continued the tradition of their forefathers by keeping January 6 as Christmas. While other local churches have put away the Christmas swag and poinsettias, Holy Trinity was decorated with such items. Traditional sacred Armenian songs were sung, and only a brief part of the service was spoken in English. Congregants had the opportunity to drink cups of holy water as a reminder of Jesus’ baptism with water. Sixteen-year-old Kevork Ajamian of Fresno was chosen to be the “godfather” for Jesus’ baptism. He held a gold cross with a white cloth that was dipped in holy water.

“It was an honor to carry on this tradition of the Armenian church, so that it’s not lost,” Kevork said. “I have been coming to this church since I was born. Now I feel I have a responsibility to be more involved with the church.” His mother, Astghik, came Saturday to honor her culture. “We come to keep the Christian faith and our culture,” she said. “It maintains the identity of who you are. The church helps our children not to stray from the path of God.”

Congregant Maro Alpoonarian has been a member since 1993. “I feel my roots are here,” she said. “I want my children to connect with their ethnicity and the church.”

After the service, children from the Sunday school re-created a living nativity. It is a 15-year tradition that was dedicated to the memory of Anne Kevorkian, who died last month. She had been instrumental in continuing living nativity performances. The public is invited to attend a free lecture on the Divine Liturgy at 7 p.m. January 27 at the church, 2226 Ventura St., said Nazik Arisian, a church administrator.

This is the Christmas that counts

Many Orthodox Christians, though not majority in U.S, hold on to January 7 as the real holiday

Today is Christmas for Viola Peifer and family, who celebrated last night with a traditional meal of bread and mushroom soup, and with straw scattered under the table as a reminder that Jesus was born among animals.

The North Side resident keeps the traditional Orthodox date of January 7 while also observing December 25 because her extended family of 97 people includes many who follow the Western calendar. But for her, it is today that counts. “On the seventh it is a command that they all come to church with me, and then we come home for Christmas food and for opening gifts,” she said of her three children, their spouses and her seven grandchildren.

No meat may be eaten Christmas Eve because of the fast, so it’s mushroom soup. They pass a cup of wine around the table and offer each other a Christmas blessing. But today there will be turkey, Orthodox Christmas, American style.

The difference in date stems from the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to solve problems with the accuracy of the ancient Julian calendar. Orthodox Christians, who regarded popes as schismatic, did not begin to follow it until the 20th century, when the Greek and Middle Eastern Orthodox churches adopted it.

Although the majority of Orthodox worldwide celebrate Christmas today, most in the U.S. celebrated it December 25. But some are allowed to choose, including parishes in the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown, to which Peifer belongs.

More than 20 years ago, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New Castle became one of the first in that diocese to move to December 25. It required a 95 percent vote of the congregation, because the issue could split parishes.

There were many reasons for the change, said the Rev. Richard Salley, pastor of St. Nicholas for 37 years. The most important was spiritual: Orthodox Advent, which includes December 25, is a time of strict fast, but many parishioners in mixed marriages were celebrating both dates. “They were breaking the Advent fasting season,” he said.

It was difficult for college students to spend Christmas with their families on January 7, which often meant they didn’t get to church at all, he said. The switch made it far easier for families to gather. “I think that in the near future, most of the churches will change,” he said.

Eastern Catholics, whose practices are nearly identical to the Orthodox, have mostly switched to December 25 in the U.S., said the Rev. Robert Oravetz, who is in charge of four Byzantine Catholic missions around Penn State University. The major exceptions are among Ukrainian Catholics, who have many new immigrants from Ukraine, which is still on the old calendar, he said.

He was 14 in 1955 when the Byzantine Catholic archbishop of Pittsburgh insisted on December 25. The push for the Western date among Eastern Catholics began after World War II, when men returned from overseas full of fervor for all things American. “They wanted two things in the churches: services in English and the so-called American calendar,” Father Oravetz said.

Language was easier to change, because understanding of Old Slavonic had declined and parishes could always hold a second service in that language, he said. But there was deep resistance to changing the calendar, which many felt was what made them distinct from “the Romans.” “When a congregation adopted the new calendar, I remember the accusations whispered that this is another parish that is going Roman,” he said.

But today, he said, the calendar is a non-issue among most Eastern Catholics. He believes the move to December 25 is good for Christian unity and would like to see Catholics adopt the Orthodox date for Easter, an idea that the late Pope John Paul II had favored.  “When you are celebrating on different dates, it allows non-Christians to be able to raise questions” about division, he said.

But the pastor at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Marshall-Shadeland said his parishioners prefer the traditional date for spiritual reasons. Because all the commercial hoopla is past, the later date keeps the focus on Jesus’ birth.

“In the Orthodox church, Christmas is celebrated spiritually. You go to church, receive the sacraments and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though people go to church on December 25, that celebration has become more secularized,” said the Rev. John Brancho.

A few people in his parish have expressed interest in changing because it is hard to get off work on January 7, he said. He writes notes for children to show their school that they are taking a day off for a religious observance. But there is little generational difference over the preferred date, he said. “Some of the younger people want to keep the traditions of their family. I think it is part of the connection of the present with the past,” he said.

The greatest challenges come from mixed families, which is virtually all of them. Peifer counts many Eastern and Latin Catholics among her 97 relatives. They have found ways to accommodate everyone with regard to gift-giving. She gives and receives half her gifts on December 25 and the other half on January 7. But her children and grandchildren always make the effort to get off work and school to celebrate what she considers real Christmas. “We do it here, in my family, by the grace of God,” she said.

Thousands join pope Shenuda for Coptic Christmas

Posted On January 7, 2007

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Cairo, Egypt > Thousands of Copts joined their pope Shenuda III at Saint Mark’s Cathedral here overnight Saturday-Sunday to celebrate Orthodox Christmas.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent a top government official to represent him at the midnight mass, which was attended by many young people. January 7, Orthodox Christmas Day, has been a nationwide holiday in Egypt for the past three years.

After the mass, the faithful were to break their 45-day fast during which they did not eat any food “with a soul” meaning coming from an animal. The traditional meal after the all-vegetarian diet is the “fatta”, a mixture of meat, rice, and bread fried in butter with garlic sauce.

The Coptic Church, the largest Christian community in the East, has about five to six million members, according to official figures, and 10 million according to Church estimates.

The Egyptian Government includes only two Copts: Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali and Secretary of State for the Environment Maged George Elias.

Orthodox Christmas 2007


Although the term “Christian” is recorded as first being used in Antioch, the first center of the Church was in Jerusalem and the first Believers were Egyptian, during what is called the “Flight into Egypt”.

When Emperor Constantine called for a clarification of Christian Beliefs and the many divergent views of Christianity were formalized, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome became the primary centers of Christianity. Rome later broke away but the others remained Orthodox.

When the Western World adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the Orthodox Church continued to use the Julian and today is therefore Christmas Eve for Orthodox Christians. Armenia became officially Christian before the reign of Constantine; the Armenian Church continues to operate independently and follows the Gregorian Calendar.

Related Links >
The Orthodox Church >

The Orthodox Church: New Edition(Paperback) >

The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation(photo source) >

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem >

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople >

The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt >

Merry Christmas >

Greece celebrates Epiphany with traditional ‘blessing of the waters’ ceremonies

Greece celebrated the religious holiday of Epiphany on Saturday with the traditional “blessing of the waters” ceremony at the country’s countless ports, harbours, lakes and reservoirs, with the nation’s political leadership also on hand at Church masses and at the water’s side.

The most prominent service was again celebrated at the port of Piraeus’ Metropolitan Cathedral and seafront, with Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos officiating at the service, attended by President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias, Defence Minister Evangelos Meimarakis, who represented the Government, main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou, former premier Costas Simitis and dozens of other government officials, MPs and local government office-holders. Most political leaders on hand expressed their best wishes for 2007.

On his part, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis attended Epiphany services near his home in the east Attica coastal town of Rafina, where he expressed his best seasons for the New Year, while emphasising the need for close ties between parents and children.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos officiated at a similar service in Constantinople [today’s Istanbul], the venerable Patriarchate’s seat.

Greek Orthodox men dive in Istanbul in celebration of Epiphany

Three Greek Orthodox faithful dived into the wintry waters of Istanbul’s Golden Horn on Saturday to retrieve a wooden cross in an Epiphany ceremony.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, first led a liturgy at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George for Epiphany, the day on which the Greek Orthodox Church commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ.

His Holiness Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, led the congregation to the shores of the Horn, a 2.3-kilometer (4.5 mile) arm of the Bosporus waterway, for the traditional ceremony of the blessing of the waters. He threw the cross into the cold water and the three worshippers jumped in, in a contest to retrieve it.

This years’ winner was Mario Tarinas, 27, from Istanbul, who beat a father and son from Greece to reach the cross first. Tarinas kissed the cross and lifted his arm to show it off as some 300 faithful, members of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek Orthodox community and visitors from Greece, cheered and applauded. The two other competitors, Christos Koulidis and his 16-year-old son, Alex, then swam toward Tarinas to touch the cross. All three were rewarded with a chain and crucifix from Bartholomew.

The ceremony was conducted under tight police security. Turkish nationalists, who mistrust the patriarchate because of its ties to Turkey’s historical rival Greece, have disrupted similar ceremonies in the past.

The Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the 1,100-year Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city, then called Constantinople, in 1453.

Although only a few thousand Greek Orthodox Christians now live in Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has remained in Istanbul, and has direct authority over several Greek Orthodox churches around the world.

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