WHY DO WE OBSERVE CHRISTMAS ON JANUARY 6?
Why are Armenians the only Christians in the world to celebrate Christmas on tbe 6th of January and not on the 25th of December, as all other Christians do? The reason is not in the difference between the old and the new calendar.
The exact day and year of Christ’s birth have never been satisfactorily established, because nothing definite has been said about them 1n the Gospels. But it is a historical fact that the celebration of Christ’s birth on the 6th of January in all the Christian churches goes further back than that of the December. Moreover, the name of the festival was not “Christmas” nor “Nativity.” It was called “Theophany” which is a Greek word meaning Manifestation or Revelation of God. The Armenian Church still clings to this older date of the 6th of January and to this older name, for in the Armenian language the proper appelation of this festival is “Asdvads-a-haydnootiun” (or simply “Haydnootiun”) which is a literal translation of “Theophany.”
The feast of Theophany covered, in the early centuries, the celebration of all the series of events beginning with the Annunciation up to the commencement of Christ’s public ministry which began with His Baptism, including the miracle of the wine in Cana. However, the Birth and the Baptism of Christ held the chief place among these various events. There are many historical proofs in support of this Joint celebration of Baptism and Christmas, under the heading of Theophany on the 6th of January and for our present purpose it will be enough to mention only a few of them.
As early as A.D. 386 the 6th of January was observed in Bethlehem, Holy Land, as the day of Christ’s Birth and Baptism. Etheria Silvia of Bordeaux, the famous lady pilgrim, whose writings about her pilgrimage to the Holy Land (in 385) have been recently discovered, testifies that in her time the 6th of January was observed in Bethlehem as the feast day of Christ’s Birth. About the same time, one of the popes of Rome (Siricius) speaks of the 6th of January as Natalitia Christi, meaning Birthday of Christ. Furthermore, one of the Church Fathers of the 4th Century, St. Ephiphanius, says quite clearly “January 6th is the day of Christ’s Birth.”
John Cassian asserts in his “Collations” (written in 418-427) that the Egyptian monasteries still observe “the ancient custom” celebrating the Nativity and the Baptism on January 6. Ephraem the Syrian (373 A.D.) proves that Mesopotamia still put the Birth feast 13 days after the Winter Solstice, i.e. 6th of January.
In the West, the Council of Saragoss (Spain) in 380 still ignored the December 25th. Contemporary historians date a visit of Julian the Apostate to a church in Gaul (France) in 361 on “Epiphany and Nativity” which shows that at that time the feast was still combined in Gaul.
So far from these few quotations, it is clear that both in the West and in the East, the celebration of Christmas and Baptism were combined and observed on the 6th of January. Let us now consider why the 25th of December was finally decided upon as the day for celebration of Christ’s Birthday.
WHY THE CHANGE TO DECEMBER 25?
We must first remember that in the early Christian church there were three main festivals: Easter, Pentecost and Theophany. There was no such thing as a separate festival called Christmas, for, as we said before, this came under the main feast of Theophany. The central event in this feast was the Baptism of Christ, for it was on this occasion that Christ was definitely and most solemnly proclaimed by the heavenly voice as the Son of God, that is, God manifested on earth. However, it became clear in the minds of the faithful that the Birth of Christ was too important an event to be celebrated as part of the feast or the Baptism and to be thus overshadowed by it. Hence the first reason for the desired separation of these two feasts.
A letter from a Bishop of Rome in the 4th century has been quoted relating to the joint celebration of the Birth and Baptism of Chist on the 6th of January. “The faithful” the letter says, “met before dawn at Bethlehem to celebrate the birth from the virgin in the cave; but before their hymns and the lections were finished they had to hurry off to river Jordan (13 miles from Bethlehem) to celebrate the Baptism. The consequence was that neither commemoration could be kept fully and properly.” The writer then goes on to plead with the Bishop of Rome to ascertain the exact date of Christ’s Birth, or else to find some means to celebrate them separately. This letter shows the origin of the future change and one of the reasons of separating the celebration of the Birth from that of the Baptism.
The main reason, however, seems to be as follows: the 25th of December, in the Roman Empire, was a great feast date connected with the “Birth of the Sun” known “Saturnalia,” since just after the Winter Solstice, the days having reached their shortest limit, begin to grow longer and longer. Because of the promise on that day (25th of December) of longer days to follow, there were great rejoicings. So the Church thought to prevent the faithful from attending the “abominable” celebrations of this very popular pagan festival on that particular date.
The new Christmas having been started in the West, spread very quickly to the East and all over the Roman Empire. The change did not penetrate into Armenia for two reasons: first, because Armenia was not within the Roman Empire, and secondly, Armenians having no such pagan festival on the 25th of December to suppress, did not see and reason to follow the new custom. So they did and still continue to celebrate of January 6th.
Courtesy of the late Archbishop Besak Toumaian