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MERRY CHRISTMAS! NO, REALLY?

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MERRY CHRISTMAS! NO, REALLY?

Israel's Christian community, albeit a diminutive 3 percent of the population, is a microcosm of the world's gentile religions, displaying an array of festivals and holidays celebrated in a compact country. Christmas is one major ? and slightly confusing ? example.

While the majority of the western world celebrated Christmas on December 25, and then Orthodox religions celebrated on January 7, one Christmas has yet to be observed: the Armenian Christmas.

Now, lest we think we have a handle on the situation, let's add some confusion to the mix: It is only the 2,500 Armenians in Israel who use an old calendar and celebrate Christmas almost a month later than the majority of the world - on January 19. Armenians in Armenia use the new calendar and celebrate on January 7.

But even within Israel's Armenian community, not all consider the same day the main celebration. Armenian Catholics observe December 25; others, who hail from an Orthodox background or are not 100 percent Armenian observe January 7; and traditionalists observe January 19, perhaps the most popular day for the majority of Armenians.

Puzzled? Don't feel alone. Even some Armenians in Jerusalem are also unaware that their Armenian brethren celebrate Christmas on January 7. Armenians in countries such as the United States usually celebrate on December 25, but have a second celebration on January 7 that is more in step with to the traditional Armenian Christmas.

But really, since the tight knit Armenian population in Israel, wedged between Jews and Arabs, seeks solace amongst each other, the holidays spill over and most Armenians end up celebrating a little of each day.

"The three of them are Christmas for me," said Aida Aintablian, a Jerusalem resident who is partly Armenian and Greek. "And also two New Years." (The Armenian New Year is January 13.)

Aida said her family's main celebration day is Christmas Eve, January 18.

History explains this little conundrum. According to the St. Andrew Information Network web site and a slew of other information sources, present day January 19 used to be January 7 according to the old Julian calendar. Armenians in the Holy Land still use the Julian calendar to set the date of their Christmas. In Armenia they use the Western calendar.

Up until the fourth century all Christian churches celebrated Christ's birth on January 7. Then the Roman church hierarchy designated December 25 as the official date of Christmas. Pope Julius I chose this date because it coincided with the pagan rituals of Winter Solstice, or Return of the Sun.

The intent was to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one. But in 1752, a number of days were dropped from the year when the switch was from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. December 25 date was moved backwards, forcing a decision: Some Christian church sects maintained Christmas on January 7, previously December 25 of the Julian calendar; others opted for the new December 25.

While the new Christmas date was selected to undermine pagan observances, Armenia had no pagan rituals on that day. And since it was not under the Roman Catholic Church, the nation kept the original and traditional date and continued Christmas celebrations on January 7. The Armenians in Israel, however, continued to observe the original date.

None of the dates, however, have been definitively proven to be Jesus' actual birth, and according to some Bible scholars, any winter date is likely to be incorrect.

Armenians have had a strong presence in the Holy Land since 254 AD. Traditionally on Christmas Eve, the Armenian Patriarch together with the clergy and followers, travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, to the Church of Nativity of Christ, for elaborate ceremonies. A procession led by Armenian scouts marches the Patriarch into the Church of Nativity. Afterwards, church services and ceremonies are conducted in the Cathedral of Nativity through the night.

So, armed with this new information, have a Merry Christmas this weekend.