Armenian Christmas in the Holy Land ‘you cannot imagine’
Photos by Shant Nalbandian
By Maayan Jaffe
Scouts with their colorful uniforms gather. More than 20 Armenian bishops and priests stand in Manger Square in Bethlehem to greet the Armenian Patriarch, His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian. With the sounds of trumpets, bagpipes, and music, the voices of young choir singers and shouts of joy, the Armenian Christmas ceremony commences.
It’s 10 a.m. and the procession begins. By 10:30, Israeli police on horseback meet the group. By 2 p.m., the Patriarch will enter the Church of the Nativity and the first of three masses will begin in the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born.
“You cannot imagine,” says Father Avedis Ipradjian during an interview with JNS.org in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. He describes hundreds of worshippers pouring into Bethlehem from Jaffa, Haifa, Ramle, and Jerusalem. They are greeted by Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and several other important Christian, Muslim, and governmental dignitaries.
Special permits are required to allow for the mass pilgrimage of Israeli Armenian Christians to Bethlehem. Every year, families receive a sheet of paper to affix to their cars and they go unhindered. Today, members of the PA greet the procession. Before 1995, top Israeli officials took part in the ceremony.
“With all of the children there is such joy. The Armenian scouts play beautiful Christmas music,” says Ipradjian.
The ceremony takes more than 24 hours, only ending after a 7 a.m. final mass. Throughout the evening, unique Armenian Christmas hymns are sung and a special liturgy is followed from holy books used only on Christmas. The Patriarch blesses attendees and they eat and drink together between services.
“There are hundreds of people, but they will all be fed,” Ipradjian notes. “We don’t go to sleep. It is 29 to 30 hours of no sleep.”
It is a regal Christmas party and a meaningful mass, as one would expect of a classy religious celebration in the Holy Land. But there is something very different.
“We do it all alone,” says Ipradjian.
The Armenian Christmas in the Holy Land is not on Dec. 25, as one would expect. It is celebrated at a time different from Christmas celebrations all over the Western world. Armenian Christmas takes place in Israel from Jan. 18-19.
In the U.S., people are familiar with Christmas occurring from Dec. 24-25. That is the date of Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, which was first instituted in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. Today, the Gregorian calendar is the internationally accepted civil calendar and is also known as the Western calendar or the Christian calendar.
There is another calendar that some Christians still adhere to and that is the old calendar, which is the Julian calendar. Many Orthodox Christians annually celebrate Christmas Day from Jan. 6-7, which marks Jesus’s birth according to the Julian calendar. In Israel, Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas from Jan. 6-7 and the epiphany (commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi) on Jan. 19.
Dr. Sergio La Porta, Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno, explains that the Julian calendar is 13 days off from the Gregorian. The Jan. 7 date on the Gregorian calendar corresponds with Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar, while Jan. 19 corresponds to Jan. 6 on the Julian calendar. Those such as the Greek Orthodox who observe Christmas on Jan. 7 are actually observing a Dec. 25 birth of Jesus. The Armenian Christians are celebrating a Jan. 6 birth of Jesus.
The Armenians in Israel celebrate the birth and the epiphany within the same two-day period, from the afternoon of Jan. 18 until midnight on Jan. 19.
“It is pretty amazing,” says La Porta. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it—anyone celebrate it like this—anywhere in the world.” La Porta lived in Israel and worked at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the early 2000s.
In Israel, the Armenians are under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. According to Ipradjian, there are around 8,000 Armenian Christians living in Israel. Around 4,000 of these individuals have roots in Israel from as early as the 4th or 5th century. The other 4,000 arrived in the last century, escaping the Armenian genocide in Turkey between 1915 and 1917 or coming as part of an intermarried family with the mass immigration of Jews to Israel from the former Soviet Union between 1992 and 1995, continuing until 2006.
In Jerusalem, amid the many significant churches—such as the Holy Sepulchre and St. Mary’s at the foot of the Mount of Olives—there are two large Armenian churches, with smaller ones mostly in northern Israel. The Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem is one of the most ornately decorated places of worship in Israel, according to La Porta. It is nestled within a walled compound in the ancient Armenian Quarter, which sits just inside the Jaffa Gate. The Cathedral of St. James is dedicated to two martyred saints of that name—St. James the Great (son of Zebedee), one of the first apostles to follow Jesus, and St. James the Lesser (the brother of Jesus), who became the first bishop of Jerusalem.
“The Armenian tradition believes that within St. James are buried the head of St. James the Great and the body of St James the Less,” La Porta says.
The Church of the Holy Archangels is another important Armenian Church in Jerusalem. It is built on a less grandiose scale than St. James and serves as a parish church. But according to La Porta, during recent excavations and restorations, workers came across inscriptions that are believed to date back as far as the 13th century.
On Christmas, all the Armenians come—members of all churches attend the ceremony in Bethlehem, and after the completion of the morning mass return home to complete festivities locally. At St. James, participants dine on pilaf and fish, celebrating by the light of hanging oil lamps.
“You cannot imagine,” Ipradjian says once again. “This is Christmas. It is everything that for Christians it should be.”