December 25 is a special day for all Christian communities. Though the birth of Jesus Christ is commonly celebrated, the origin of Christmas traditions isn’t known by all. We talked to the leader of Armenian Catholics of Turkey Kerabaydzar Levon Zekiyan about these traditions, from why Christmas is celebrated on December 25 to the origin of Christmas tree decorations.
What is the history of Christmas celebrations?
Christmas is one of the two most important holidays in Christianity; Easter being the most important one. We respect the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ, not as an Ave. Holidays of the Virgin Mary are also the holidays of Jesus Christ. The conception of Jesus with the power of Holy Spirit is celebrated on March 25 and on April 7 by Armenians. March 21 is the beginning of spring. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Easter date differs because of different calendars. Today, Gregorian calendar is commonly used in the West and Rumi calendar is behind 13 days from it. For instance, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but the ones who use Rumi calendar celebrate it on January 7. Only Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas on January 6. However, the birthday of Jesus Christ is neither December 25 nor January 6. Christmas is not as old as Easter; it doesn’t date back to the first days of Christianity. Christmas was started to be celebrated on 4th century. The choice of date for this celebration can be explained as the following: in Pagan times, on the holiday of Anahid, the major goddess of Armenians, grapes were offered to her. Anahid isn’t the goddess of love; she is the goddess of earth. Her husband Aramast is equal to Zeus. However, Zeus is dependent on the wishes of Hera, because he is lustful. In Eastern World, Aramast is an invisible god; he enjoys silence and tranquility. On the other hand, Anahid is goddess of “moral pureness”. Her duty is to clean the semen of men and wombs of women so that the babies would be born pure. Anahid is referred as the “Queen of Armenians”. Since the grape is one of the most beautiful products of the earth, it was very important for Armenians before Christianity and that is why they were offering it to Anahid. Krikor Lusavoriç presented this holiday to the Virgin Mary; thus, the Virgin Mary replaced Anahid.
When was Christmas started to be celebrated on December 25?
Until 4th century, the community was pagan. In 313, Christians were given freedom. After that, the community became slowly Christianized and wanted to celebrate Christmas. In the West, Zeus holiday was December 24-25. On the morning on December 25, the days start to get longer. Zeus is Sun; the biggest, shiniest light. Jesus Christ is the light of God. So, they made the holiday of Zeus holiday of Jesus Christ.
In Persian Empire, Mihr was one of the most important gods and he is also god of light. Mihr’s holiday was celebrated on January 6. Persian Assyrians, Armenians and all Christian communities linked Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, to Mihr. Armenians are the only Christian community that preserves the tradition of celebration on January 6. We shouldn’t think that people weren’t in contact in those days. So, western and eastern Christians started to celebrate the birth of Jesus in both dates.
At the end of the first half of 6th century, Armenian Church was separated from Byzantine Church. Thus, the date of Christmas changed. Maybe they were celebrating Christmas on December 25 and after the separation, they returned to their old tradition; or maybe they weren’t and held to their old tradition.
How did the tradition of decorating a tree start?
Decorating a Christmas tree is a German tradition. Germany is a forested country; some trees are so big that you cannot see the sky. In old Germanic religions, trees are sacred. Christmas tree tradition dates back to pagan times of Scandinavian and German countries, and Christians adopted it. People don’t reject existent, reasonable traditions; they give them other meanings and render them sacred. Anthropologically, “the word” is the major profundity of religions. It means “word of God” and it was shaped within a certain culture. Coming into being of the word is the base of all religions. Spain, Southern France and Italy despised decorating a tree, because it is a pagan tradition. Decorating a tree is not a very old tradition, it started 80 years ago. Green is the symbol of hope; the hope always greens. Lights are the symbol of faith. Red flowers are the symbol of love, the divine love. Decorating a tree has been a part of German tradition for centuries, but it came to the West much later.
What about Santa Claus?
Santa Claus is a tradition from the north. Besides, it has a certain history in Anatolia. During my childhood, Greek children were wandering in the streets and singing a song called “Saint Vasil” on the Christmas Eve. Saint Vasil is one of the symbols of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas, known as Santa Claus today, drew considerable interest in the north. In the south, there is Santa Lucia, the Ave of the Eyes, who heals the eyes, and her holiday is on December 13. In Italy, there is Beffana. She is an ugly woman who punishes naughty kids; she burns their mouth with coal and if they are well-behaved, she comes down through the chimney. This is the origin of coming down through the chimney story. Of course, they are all tales. Christmas is most of all a holiday for children. All communities use Santa Clause to amuse and behave children and children believes in Santa Claus.
“December is actually the 10th month”
New Year celebrations are ancient. In Roman times, the New Year started on March. The name “December” comes from “deka”; it is the 10th month. This is a Roman tradition. In Armenian tradition, the New Year starts on August. Linking the New Year to the birth of Jesus Christ is a new tradition; it dates back 7th century. Before that, years were dependent on Olympics and in some cases, coronation dates of the emperors.