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The History of “Armenian Christmas” in Jerusalem

Mitchell Stein |30/12/2021|448
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The Old City of Jerusalem is home to a variety of religions, cultures, and ethnicities and each bring rich heritage and histories to the ancient city. Among them is Jerusalem’s Armenian community, who largely live in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter, and among their own unique customs, they also have their own unique day for celebrating Christmas - January 19th, nearly one month later than the rest of the global Christian community. Today, we’ll look at the rich history of Armenians in Jerusalem, and the reason why Christmas is different on the Armenian calendar than other Christian groups.

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Armenians are an ethnic group native to Armenia, who largely adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church. In the 4th century, Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, officially converting the entirety of its population. Armenians are represented around the world and have a long history in the ancient city of Jerusalem, dating back to the 1st century, and the founding of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 638.

Until the fourth century, all churches celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6th, but in the year 336 the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed that the Christmas celebration be moved from its January 6th date, to December 25th, to compete with and overshadow an earlier pagan holiday, the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus). The year before, in 335, Constantine completed work on the building of the majestic Church of the Holy Sepulcher, bringing the city of Jerusalem under Roman Christian control.

While these significant changes to Christianity occurred under decree of Constantine, the Christian community of Armenia remained unaffected, simply because no such pagan practices existed in Armenia. Therefore, the local Armenian community continued to celebrate Christmas on January 6th, as they had always done.

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Armenian ordinands inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Old City in Jerusalem. (Moshe Milner)

What then, of the Armenians in Jerusalem, and why do they celebrate on January 19th, rather than on January 6th, like the rest of the global Armenian population? This is because the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem still abides by the Julian calendar, a calendar proposed by Julius Caesar, and the predominant calendar of the Roman Empire that remained in use for over 1,600 years. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII enforced a modification that shortened the calendar by ten days, to correct and reset the calendar - which due to an original overestimation of the year’s duration, which had become out-of-sync with the seasonal cycle. Thus, the Gregorian calendar was born.

As the Julian calendar was largely abandoned in favor of the Gregorian calendar, Armenians, through the Armenian Apostolic Church, adjusted their calendar and subsequently celebrated Christmas on January 6th of the new calendar. However, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem did not adjust the change, and continued to celebrate on January 19th according to the previous calendar. Therefore, today, the Armenian community of Jerusalem continues to celebrate Christmas and the “Epiphany” on January 19th, exclusive from a large portion of Christians, and even the rest of the global Armenian community.

Join us in wishing our Armenian neighbors and friends in the Old City of Jerusalem, a “Shnorhavor Amanor yev Surb Tznund” (Շնորհավոր Ամանոր և Սուրբ Ծնունդ): “Congratulations for the Holy Birth”!

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