Viken Markarian and his brother Vasken were given money, clothing and gift bags on Dec. 25, and later that day, the family sat down to a turkey dinner with all the traditional trimmings.
But, strictly speaking, they were not celebrating Christmas. Their Christmas was two days ago – and there were no presents.
Viken, 19, and Vasken, 14, and their parents, who live in Jackson Heights, Queens, are Armenian. They celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, a date dictated by the old Julian calendar.
“It sounds crazy to some of my friends,” Viken said after services Wednesday night at the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, on the East Side of Manhattan. “But, it’s our way.”
The calendar that set Dec. 25 as Christmas is called the Gregorian calendar because it was adopted during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII in the late 16th century. It replaced the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar, which incorrectly gave each year an extra 11-1/2 minutes and thus made the dates for Easter and other important Christian holidays increasingly inaccurate.
Most of the Christian world quickly adopted the Gregorian calendar, but some ethnic or national Orthodox churches, as well as the Armenian Church of America, still honor the old Julian calendar for traditional liturgical reasons – after all, they argue, it was the one in use when most Christian dogma was formulated.
“At least we’re not the only ones out of step,” one usher at St. Vartan said. “Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Romanians, you name it – their Christmas is Jan. 6, too.”
Still, contemporary cultural influences are so strong that even old-calendar Christians who do not celebrate Dec. 25 as the birth date of Jesus often exchange gifts on that day. In some cases, there are gifts on Jan. 6, although this is by no means established tradition.
“We’ve already had our Christmas,” Vasken said. “We’re not going to get anything else.” But Jan. 6 is still a special day for the Armenian community.
There are about 1 million members of the Armenian Church of America in the United States and Canada, with metropolitan New York home to the largest single community. This does not include members of the Armenian Catholic Church, which is allied with Rome and observes Christmas on Dec. 25.
“For us, Christmas is not exclusively a religious holiday,” said the Rev. Mardiros Chevian, dean (administrator) of St. Vartan for the past dozen years. “It’s also a family and community holiday.”
It was Chevian who led the liturgically elaborate Christmas Eve services Wednesday, while his superior, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, spiritual leader of Armenians living everywhere in the United States except California, Washington, Arizona and Nevada, celebrated the Christmas Day service Thursday that traditionally ends with the triumphant proclamation “Christ is born and revealed.”
At the Christmas Eve service, 40 robed teenagers read scriptural passages before Chevian, a Rhode Islander who was ordained 20 years ago at St. Vartan, led the hour-long Mass, assisted by six deacons and a choir singing in Armenian.
After the service, Chevian said that it was impossible for the congregation – or himself – to ignore the traditional trappings of the “other Christian” denomination that celebrated Dec. 25.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to a tall, impressively decorated Christmas tree standing outside the main entrance to the sanctuary. “It’s not Armenian, but we recognize the reality of where we are.” There also were heaps of poinsettias around the altar, another seasonal touch with no basis in Armenian tradition.
He also displayed a letter he had written to school superintendents or principals, asking them to allow their Armenian students to skip classes on Jan. 6 to observe the Christmas holiday. “They usually excuse our students,” Chevian said. “New Yorkers know about other people’s holidays.”
In turn, St. Vartan frequently plays host to non-Armenian tour groups, many of them from public schools. About 100 are scheduled to visit in the next week or so. “We’ll show them around and tell them some stories, then give them some Armenian pastry,” Chevian said.
How about exchanges of greetings?
“No problem,” Viken said. “They say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ We say, ‘Shnorhavor soorp dznoont.'”