JERUSALEM—Tonight is Christmas Eve for the Armenian community in the Holy Land.
Yes, believe it.
When most of the world switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the Orthodox churches stuck with the Julian calendar. But while the other Orthodox churches moved the date of Christmas back 13 days to make up for the discrepancy of the two calendars, the Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem did not.
Hence, Dec. 25 for Catholics and Protestants, Jan. 7 for Orthodox churches but Jan. 19 for the few thousand Armenians who live in the Holy Land. Outside of Israel, Armenians celebrate with the Orthodox on Jan. 7 or Catholics on Dec. 25 depending on their denomination.
Just like last year – the first Christmas under COVID-19 restrictions – many celebrations this year are private and visitors are not allowed into the convent to see the tree as they had been in previous years.
The smallest of the Old City’s quarters, the Armenian Quarter has been an established community in Jerusalem since the nation of Armenia declared Christianity its state religion in the year 301 and countrymen began making pilgrimages to the holy city.
The quarter is centered around St. James Cathedral, built in the 12th century. Most of the residents live within the convent which also contains a private school – St. Tarkmanchatz, a library, a soccer field and another chapel, the Church of the Holy Archangels.
The convent is private and, unlike the other areas of the Old City, most of the Armenian Quarter is inaccessible to outsiders.
Armenian is the primary language of the residents, many of whom also speak Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Thousands more Armenians fled to Jerusalem after the Armenian Genocide which began in 1915. Some 1.5 million Armenians, living in what is now modern-day Turkey, were killed in a systematic execution of the Christian minority forcing a massive migration of those who were fortunate enough to escape. Armenians settled in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon as well.
At the height of Jerusalem’s Armenian presence, the community numbered 25,000 in Israel. But in recent years, the Armenian population has declined to just a few thousand with estimates ranging between 2,500 to 8,000 across the entire country, mostly in Jerusalem with smaller communities in Jaffa, Ramle and Haifa.