An Armenian Christmas in Bethlehem

By Harry Hagopian
January 8, 2016

While many in the West think of Christmastide ending on the so-called ‘twelfth night’, Armenians celebrate Christmas in Israel and Palestine on 19 January.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2. 6-7).

Christmas in January

And yes, before some smart aleck interjects to remind me that I have got my dates hopelessly mixed up, just remember that Armenians in the Holy Land celebrate the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany together (hence Theophany) according to the old liturgical practice. In other words, they follow the Julian calendar that existed before Pope Gregory XIII changed it to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and in so doing brought Christmas to 25 December for the majority of Western Christians.

The Bethlehem of my Childhood

I remember so clearly those young and early teen days when my mum and dad would take me by car on a 20-minute ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Day so that we could visit the Basilica of the Nativity. We used to enter the church through the small wooden door, and then go gingerly down the narrow steps that led to the manger where Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Saviour, was born some two thousand years ago.

Having said a prayer or two, and having witnessed the round-the-clock holy masses that took place in different languages in that narrow candle-lit space, we headed for the old town of Bethlehem where we had a falafel sandwich (with turnip pickles of course) before returning to Jerusalem.

Bethlehem was so peaceful and welcoming then, and the Christmas season was a real occasion (perhaps even a family ritual) for us. It brought Christmas home to me, and reminded me of the ancient roots of my family who had settled in Jerusalem after they fled the Armenian genocide.

The Bethlehem of my Adulthood

For the past few years, though, this little town of Bethlehem that witnessed the birth of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6) has become a solitary prison of trepidation, despair and uncertainty. The magic of this town, as it affirmed the Mystery of the Incarnation, has been ruined by an unjust political reality that has been debilitating at best and devastating at worst.

Alas, Bethlehem is now fearful and unwelcoming, surrounded by an ugly separation wall (covered with graffiti by many Palestinian and foreign artists including the British street artist Banksy) as well as the ominous checkpoint 300 that discriminates willy-nilly between one human being and another. All this on the day when we are reminded that Jesus’ mother could not get into a room in the inn either! So Christmas is no longer about the joy of the Nativity as much as it is about negotiating checkpoints in order to enter Manger Square and revere the Son of God in his lowly birthplace.

My prayer for Bethlehem

I have one fierce prayer for Christmas 2016. I hope that this little town – let alone the Holy Land as a whole as it extends from Palestine, Israel and Jordan onto the other countries that witnessed the biblical story – would re-discover peace, justice, nonviolence and harmony. I hope that the joyful news witnessed by the three magi (Matthew 2.11) and which King Herod failed to destroy despite his crimes against humanity (Matthew 2.16), would re-visit this town and also this land.

After all, Christmas is not solely about family reunions. Nor is it solely about meals, drinks, mistletoes and gifts alone! At its heart, and as the popular carol Little Town of Bethlehem sings, it is about the birth of a little baby born of Mary "where meek souls will receive him still."

Merry - Armenian Jerusalemite - Christmas to you all!

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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