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For many Los Angeles-area Armenians, it's two days till Christmas

The traditional date of Jan. 6 is still observed by many Southern California Armenians, who find it more meaningful and spiritual -- and less commercial -- than the Dec. 25 celebration.

January 04, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez
  • Marine Abrahamyan-Abdasho rehearses with the choir at St. Peter Armenian Church, where Christmas Masses will be celebrated Tuesday and Wednesday.
Marine Abrahamyan-Abdasho rehearses with the choir at St. Peter Armenian… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Never mind the stripped Christmas trees cast out along the driveways or the holiday house lights that stopped shimmering over the weekend. According to Richard Dekmejian's Armenian calendar, Christmas is now two days away.

The choir director at St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale must tune his singers' voices one last time. His wife must prepare a feast for the family. And when Jan. 6 arrives, he will proclaim to those he knows:

"Kristos dzunav yev haydnetsav!" "Christ is born and revealed among us!"

On a date that comes later (or, some might argue, much earlier), than traditional Western Christmas, Armenians across Southern California will gather Wednesday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and his baptism in the Jordan River. Many will flock to Orthodox Christian churches to participate in a solemn, centuries-old service in which people drink holy water believed to contain some of the same oil used to baptize Jesus. Then they will gather, generally without gifts, to dine and rejoice in their homes.

The celebration, known to some as Theophany or simply Armenian Christmas, follows the original Julian calendar as opposed to the standard Western or Gregorian calendar. When Christians began to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as dictated by the Romans, Armenians held to the original Jan. 6 date.

It is not to be confused with El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day, which is celebrated by many Spanish-speaking Catholics on Jan. 6 and marks the adoration of the Christ child by the kings, or Magi.

For Armenians living in America, the dual holidays add more cheer to an already-packed season.

"We double-dip," Dekmejian said. "It's an extended Christmas period from the 24th until the sixth."

For those who emigrated from formerly Soviet-ruled Armenia, where religious events were banned, Christmas may be a relatively new concept. For many, the holidays typically revolved around New Year's, when gifts were exchanged and relatives filled the streets visiting one another's homes.

In America, some families have adapted to new customs, gathering for dinner on Dec. 25 or, in some cases, adding the all-American staple, turkey, to a traditional Armenian menu of fish and rice with raisins and nuts.

"Some in the new generation, they want more American Christmas now," said Robert, an Armenian father of two from Glendale who declined to give his last name. "Armenian Christmas, it doesn't mean so much."

But for many who observe their native country's Christmas, the Jan. 6 date carries a deeper meaning. Without gifts, malls or Santa Claus, Suzie Shatarevyan, 30, of Van Nuys said, her family is able to focus more meaningfully on family and church.

"It's a real Christmas," she said, "none of that commercial stuff."

At Armenian churches across Glendale and the San Fernando Valley, the tradition was alive and well in recent days as priests prepared parishes for hundreds of visitors, each seeking a few ounces of holy water to carry home. In Montebello, where Armenians once lived in great numbers, Father Ashod Kambourian readied his church to host a community dinner for about 600 guests.

"In old days, the priests would visit the homes and bless them," he said. "It's good news. It's happy days."

At St. Peter Armenian Church, Father Vazken Movsesian said he hoped to take all the extended good cheer and put it toward charity. The church's volunteers doubled their year-round outreach efforts in December, delivering toys to local children and sweaters to nearby hospitals.

Jan. 6 "is nothing more than a date," he said. "We want people to let love be born in their heart every day."


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