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January 15, 2012January 15, 2012  7 comments  Events

Whoever said that Christmas only comes once a year does not, obviously, live in Jerusalem. Thanks to a glut of Christian denominations confined in one small geographical space, Christmas comes three times in the Holy Land - more here than anywhere else in the world.

In every other part of the world, Christmas can be penciled in on two dates: Dec. 25, celebrated by Catholics and Pentecostals; and Jan. 7 as celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox church.

But due to a calendar glitch, the Armenian Orthodox church in the Holy Land celebrates the Nativity of Jesus on January 18 and January 19th. This also coincides with Russian and Greek Orthodox faithful who will make their annual pilgrimage to Qasr El Yahud for the Feast of Theophany, which they celebrate on that 18th. The Ethiopian Orthodox church will celebrate the Baptism of Jesus on the afternoon of the 18th while on the 19th, the Coptic Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox Churches will celebrate Epiphany at Qasr El Yahud.


Armenian Christmas in Bethlehem

Armenian Christmas parade to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Photo courtesy Travelujah


The Gregorian calendar, which has a difference of 12 days, was introduced in 1752. At that time, all Christian churches, with the exception of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, switched to the Gregorian calendar to determine the date of religious feasts. In Jerusalem, the Armenian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar. With the 12-day difference, the Armenians in Jerusalem, and only in Jerusalem, observe Christmas later while even Armenians living in Armenia and anywhere else in the world celebrate the holiday with the other Orthodox religions.

The community here celebrates the day with solemnity.

"Outside of Jerusalem, January 18 is just another day," Katia Toumayan told Travelujah-Holy Land tours. "But it is significant since they hold midnight mass in Bethlehem. I suppose the 18th is the spiritual day versus the materialistic celebration of the 25th or 6th."

All Christian churches originally celebrated Christmas Eve on Jan. 6. In the 4th century, the Roman Catholic Church designated Dec. 25 as the holiday in order to replace the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, while Orthodox churches stuck with Jan. 6.


Armenian Church

Armenian Church in Jerusalem ; photo courtesy Travelujah


For the Armenian Christmas in the Holy Land, the Patriarch in Jerusalem, priests and a marching band will make a procession from the Old City of Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The processional continues to Bethlehem's Manger Square where there is an official reception at the Church of the Nativity. Services take place throughout the night including a midnight service at the Grotto of the Nativity.

Traditionally, families will have a holiday meal of pilaf and fish and will attend a Christmas mass at Saint James, a church rebuilt in the 1200s in Saint James Convent in Jerusalem. The Christmas service takes place at midnight and is a unique event as the only light is provided by the colorful oil lamps hanging in the square stone basilica.

The calendar for the Armenians in Jerusalem affects their New Year celebrations we well. On Jan. 13, Armenians will ring in the New Year with celebrations and a mass in Jerusalem's Old City. Christians celebrate with a feast on New Year's Eve and mass on New Year's morning.

The orthodox churches of Georgia, Jerusalem, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine still use the Julian Calendar.

Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 AD. And even before that, Armenians have claimed an enduring presence in Jerusalem dating back to 95 BC and a community on Mount Zion since the fourth century. To this day, there is an Armenian Quarter in the Old City with fewer than 2,000 residents.

The Armenians endured persecution and massacres in Turkey in the late 1800s culminating in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and now have a far-flung diaspora, more widespread than that of the Jews. Armenia itself was under Soviet rule until 1991. While Christmas may be the most drawn out of the Armenian feasts in Jerusalem, more Armenians make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Easter each year than for Christmas.


St. James

St. James Church in the Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem Photo Courtesy Travelujah


Sidebar: Where to Attend Armenian Christmas Services and Orthodox Epiphany


Orthodox Epiphany -Annual Pilgrimage  to Jesus' Baptismal Site

January 18 (Eastern Orthodox) and January 19 (Syrian and Coptic)

11:00 am Qasr El Yahud


Armenian Church

Basilica of the Nativity
Manger Square
Tel. 274.2410


January 18

11 a.m. Arrival of the Armenian Patriarch at Manger Square

2 p.m. Entry in the Basilica of Nativity - Vespers and Christmas Eve Mass

10 p.m. Armenian Midnight Service, ends at 1 a.m.

January 19 (Feast of Epiphany starts)

1 to 6 a.m. Blessing of the Holy Water & Episcopal High Mass in the Grotto


St. James Cathedral
St. James, Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem
Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road
Tel. 628.2331


January 18

1 p.m. Eve of the Nativity at Holy Sepulchre

January 25

3 p.m. Vespers at St. James Cathedral

January 26

8:30 a.m. High Mass at Holy Sepulchre


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Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.



January 24, 2014January 24, 2014  1 comments  Holy Sites

It is said that the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the earliest years of Christianity. Even before 301 AD, which was the year in which Armenia became the first country that adopted belief in Christ as its national faith.


As early as in 154 AD, bishops of Armenia together with those of Jerusalem and Alexandria, worked actively on finding the spots of the holy sites related to the activities of Jesus.


After St. Sophronius died in 638, the Greeks did not designate another bishop for Jerusalem. Thus the Armenian Apostolic Church began appointing its own bishops for the Holy City. Since those days the office has continued almost uninterruptedly, with a change that the Bishops were later given a higher status of Patriarchs.


Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem


Entrance to St. James Cathedral Travelujah


The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem and is a home for around 2000 persons. The Armenians of the Holy City distinguish among themselves two different groups: people who were residents of Jerusalem before the Armenian Genocide, which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Armenian refugees who fled from the other parts of the Ottoman Empire to escape the massacre.


St. James Cathedral


Cathedral of St. James Jerusalem Travelujah


The focal point of the Armenian Quarter is undoubtedly the ancient Cathedral of St. James which hosts the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The monastery incorporates two Byzantine chapels, however its most part dates from the Crusader-era that survived undamaged since those times.


The church is said to be built over the site of the tombs of two martyrs bearing the same name: St. James “Brother of the Lord” - the first bishop of the Christian church and St. James the Apostle (the Great). 


St. James the Great was sentenced to death and beheaded by Herod Agripa I around 44 AD (Acts 12:1-2). Armenian tradition states that only his head is entombed beneath the cathedral in Jerusalem (this corpus is believed to be in Santiago de Compostela in Spain).


The burial place of St. James the Apostle is marked by a small but very decorative shrine on the left side of the church, where each year on the 13th of January the community commemorates the Feast of St. James. The holyday is also solemnized with a ceremonial procession inside the monastery.


Shrine of St. James Travelujah


The opening hours of the St. James Cathedral are very restricted: 6.30-7.30 am and 3.00-3.40 pm Sun-Fri; 6.30-9.30 am and 3.00-3.40 pm Sat. This all is excused by the tremendous treasure that is exposed inside the edifice: gold and silver items, ancient paintings and other lush decorations.


The interior of the church is partly decorated with ceramic tiles that are very similar to some of those that cover parts of the Dome of the Rock. The only difference in design is that the tiles placed in the monastery contain small crosses. The tiles were actually made by the same person – Mgrdthch Karakashian, who came to Jerusalem in 1919 as an Armenian refugee and where he opened his ceramics shop. Karakashian was hired by the British Mandate to make some reparations to the Muslim shrine that was in a poor state at that time.


Armenian Tiles Jerusalem Travelujah


Armenian Cross


As the Byzantine Church (and now the Greek Orthodox) has artistically expressed itself through iconography, the Armenian Church expressed itself in various designs of a cross. Khachkar is a very distinctive symbol that in its form combines a cross with floral elements. It is very common to decorate sacred spaces with various designs of Armenian Cross.


Armenian Cross Travelujah


Holy Places under the Armenian Custody


Along with the Franciscan Order and the representatives of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches, the Armenian Patriarchate has a privilege of being a custodian of the Holy Places, among which are: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden of the Gethsemnane, the Tomb of the Holy Virgin, all in Jerusalem, or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was finally confirmed in 1852 in the “Status Quo” document, a written declaration of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid.


Cathedral of St. James Jerusalem Travelujah


Armenian Christmas in Bethlehem


Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born, celebrates Christmas three times per year. It is because the different Christian denominations follow different Eucharistic calendars but also due to the fact that the Basilica of the Nativity and Bethlehem itself would have a great difficulty to accommodate all the Christmas pilgrims in the same time.


The Armenian Christmas Eve falls on the 18th of January and is also a day of celebrative scout parade that precedes the arrival of the Armenian Patriarch on the Manger Square and his solemn entry to the Basilica of the Nativity (around 2 pm).


The Armenian community which numerously flocks from Jerusalem and other parts of the world celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass from 10 pm till 1 am in the Armenian owned part of the Nativity Church’s complex. The service is immediately followed by the Blessing of the Holy Water & Episcopal High Mass in the Nativity Grotto.


Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Eve on the 24th of December and Orthodox and Oriental Christians celebrate it on the 6th of January.



Beata Andonia blogs regularly for Travelujah, the leading faith-based social network in the Holy Land. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010. 

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