BEIRUT: It’s that time of year again when Lebanese Armenians hear the oft-repeated refrain, “Oh that’s right, you celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6!” And every year, we go through the tired exercise of laying it out. It may be true that Christmas for Orthodox Armenians technically falls on Jan. 6.
However, while most Orthodox Armenians in Lebanon stick to their guns by letting Dec. 24 - Christmas Eve for the rest of the world - slip by with nary a whisper, our resilience, for the most part, tends to last only until New Year’s Eve, when we hit two birds with one stone by celebrating the arrival of the New Year alongside the whole Santa Claus affair, with the entire family gathering for a lavish feast and exchanging enough gifts to fill a 40-foot container.
“New Year’s Eve is a family affair for Armenians” said Yeran Zeitounsian, an Armenian-language teacher. When the clock strikes 12, Armenian families light candles and welcome the New Year with a prayer.
And no Christmas celebration is complete without food. On Christmas Eve, which is called “Khtoum” in Armenian, some families make fish and rice.
Narod Kejebachian, a student at Haigazian University, said, “We eat fried fish and a baked good made of minced meat,” among the meals her family has on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas table of an Armenian household in Lebanon will most likely have, among many other dishes, kafta, sarma (grape leaves filled with rice and minced meat), mouhammara in addition to knefe. Wine is a must on every table.
On Jan. 1, Armenian families come together and have a soup made with yogurt and kafta, Zeitounsian said. “The white color of the yogurt signifies the ‘good,’ which is how they [families] hope the New Year to be,” she explained.
On a visit to Burj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut where many Armenians live, during the Holiday season people can find dried fruits and nuts on display in many shops, and when visiting an Armenian home, one will unmistakably find those displayed in plates, in addition to whole shelled walnuts threaded on a string and encased in grape jelly and bastekh (a paper-like dessert made of grape jelly, cornstarch and flour).
Some Armenians also fast the week before Christmas.
If you visit an Armenian home during Christmas time, you will most likely be served cherry liqueur, often homemade, along with chocolate.
That partially explains the confusion in regards to when and how Armenians actually celebrate Christmas, but then there’s the why.
“I’m often conflicted on how to respond when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas on Dec. 24,” said Lebanese Armenian Shahen Araboghlian, assistant manager of the H-Pem Armenian Cultural platform.
Those sentiments grow clearer when we understand the exact cause of the variance in dates.
Up until the fourth century, the entire world recognized Jan. 6 as the day of the birth of Christ. However, the Roman Church wanted to proliferate Christianity at a time when Paganism was prevalent, but it knew that its efforts would face opposition. Therefore, rather than prohibit major Pagan festivities, which fell on Dec. 25, it cleverly chose to shift Christmas to that date, and silently transformed the festivities to celebrations of the birth of Christ.
On the other hand, no such Pagan festivities took place in Armenia, which is why Armenians never needed to move the Christmas date and continue to celebrate it on Jan. 6.
As for what Armenians actually do on “official” Armenian Christmas, it’s mostly very familiar to the wider Christian community. Some families go to the church to observe Mass on the evening of Jan. 5. Later, kids go caroling from house to house after midnight until the morning of Christmas day. “We go to church on Jan. 6 and later visit relatives and friends to congratulate their Christmas,” said Kejebachian, explaining how the majority of Armenians spend their Christmas day.
People also celebrate those named Avedis, which means “good tidings,” referring to the birth of Jesus Christ.
The day after Christmas Day, Jan. 7, is Memorial Day, when those who have passed on are remembered.
Many Armenians visit the graves of their loved ones, adorning them with flowers, and remembering them by telling stories and making toasts in their memory.
After that the Christmas tree can finally be put away.