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Why January 6th and not December 25th?

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By Fr. Shnork Souin

How many times have you been asked why Armenian celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January or, “If Jesus was born on December 25th, then why do you celebrate on January 6th?", or “why do the Greek Orthodox observe January 7th?” For the very sophisticated, another question worth pondering would be why the Armenians in Jerusalem observe January 19th as the day of Theophany. So, are there 4 dates for the celebration of Christmas? What gives?

The question about dates can be answered in 3 parts. First, we really don't know exactly when Jesus was born. The actual date of this glorious celebration is less important than the fact that He was born.

Second, there are actually only 2 dates for the observance of Jesus' birth and not 4. They are December 25th and January 6th. The confusion of the other 2 dates, January 7th and 18th are due to the use of 2 calendars, the Gregorian and the Julian. While most of the world is on the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory of Rome), Orthodox Christians maintain their liturgical calendars according to the ancient Julian calendar. Thus, the January 7th date actually corresponds with December 25th on the "old" Julian calendar while January 19th corresponds to January 6th on the Gregorian calendar. Those who observe January 7th, which is actually December 25th on the Julian calendar, are referred to as "old calendarists." Despite the calendar usage, all these churches observe the Epiphany or the Baptism of Jesus 12 days following the Nativity.

Third, the Armenian Church, which observes the Gregorian calendar everywhere except in Jerusalem (in order to maintain the Status Quo), observe the ancient date of January 6th as the dual celebration of Jesus' birth and baptism. The dual celebrations were observed on January 6th until the 5th century when the Council of Chalcedon (451 ad) formally declared December 25th as the date for the celebration of "Christmas," separating the Nativity from the Baptism of Christ by the "12 days of Christmas".

Although there are many compelling theories as to the reason for moving the celebration of the Nativity to December 25th, suffice it to say that it is generally believed that the date was changed in order to override and subdue pagan feasts and practices dedicated to The Winter Solstice, in honor of Saturnalia, a festival lasting from the 17th to the 25th of December culminating with the "Birth of the Unconquerable Sun," as the days began to lengthen. Since the date of the Epiphany or Baptism was more ancient, and was of primary importance as a liturgical feast, it was not possible to move it while the secondary and later addition of the nativity could be moved without great offence.

Armenia, whose Christianity is of ancient apostolic origins, did not adopt this change for the simple reason that there were practically no such pagan practices left in Armenia in the 5th century allowing them to remain faithful to the traditions of their forefathers. To this day, Armenians have continued to celebrate the Nativity on January 6th along with the Epiphany which is crowned, as with other Orthodox Church's, in the observance of Christ's Baptism, with a glorious "Blessing of the Waters" service in whose climax a Cross is plunged into the water as a sign of God's Saving mystery in Christ's life from Womb to Tomb. The blessed water is offered to all as a sign
of God's manifestation in the glorious waters of the Jordan from which mankind is born again to new life.