Posted 09 January 2001 - 12:19 AM
Armenians Carrying A 1,700-Yr.-Old Flame
BY CHARLES W. BELL
Daily News (New York)
January 6, 2001, Saturday
A GUY IN the gift shop at St. Vartan's Cathedral, in midtown
Manhattan, was listing the pros and cons of the Armenian
celebration of Christmas, which is today.
"At least we don't have to put up with Alvin and the Chipmunks," he
And then somebody reminded him that it was an Armenian, Ross
Bagdasarian, who created Alvin in 1958 and who wrote the song that
became an annual novelty hit.
"Who knew?" he said.
Actually, a lot of people might ask the same thing about the timing
of the Armenian Christmas.
Armenians celebrate it Jan. 6 because they use both lunar and
solar calculations to set dates for religious holidays. As far as
anyone knows, no other major religious community observes Christmas
on that date.
Among other things, this means that Armenians greet each other
"Happy New Year and Merry Christmas," reversing the usual order,
because New Year's - not being a religious holiday for them - is
celebrated Jan. 1.
Millions of other Christians - almost all members of Eastern
Orthodox churches established after a split with Rome in the 11th
century - celebrate Christmas tomorrow. This is because they go
strictly by the Julian, or lunar, calendar. For most Christians,
Jan. 6 is a significant holiday - it's the Epiphany, which,
depending on church doctrine or tradition, celebrates the three
kings' visit to see Jesus and give him gifts, or Christ's baptism.
But Epiphany is not an Armenian holiday.
"It gets so confusing," says Chris Zakian, spokesman for Archbishop
Khajag Barsamian, the spiritual leader of the eastern diocese of
the Armenian Church of America. He is the chief shepherd of all
Armenians who live east of the Rocky Mountains.
Adding to the confusion for many Christians is that only Armenians
combine holidays celebrating the birth of Jesus and his baptism.
This adds an additional colorful rite to the Christmas service - a
ceremony called the "Blessing of the Water," commemorating the
baptism of Christ. At the end of the service, worshippers receive
tiny samples of the water just blessed by Barsamian.
Some worshippers drink it immediately. Some keep it until the next
Christmas. Some give it to a needy or sick person.
This is Barsamian's 10th anniversary as archbishop - he was elected
by clergy and lay Armenians in May 1990 - but that milestone moment
is overshadowed by another.
The service today marks the beginning of the 1,700th anniversary of
Armenia's officially becoming Christian, the first country in the
world to do so.
Based on historical documents from the Fourth and Fifth centuries,
Armenians date the founding of Christianity in their homeland as
A.D. 301. Legend has it that St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron
saint of Armenia, was imprisoned for 13 years for preaching
Christianity. Upon his release, he converted King Tiridates III.
A year-long celebration of the 1,700th anniversary began last night
at the cathedral.
Barsamian distributed a symbolic "Light of St. Gregory" to two
youngsters from each of the 59 parishes under his command around
the country. They will carry the lights home to their own
Barsamian brought the light to New York at midweek from
Etchmiadzin, spiritual and administrative center of the church.
But this was no ordinary flight.
Because he was carrying live fire, Barsamian could not travel by
commercial plane or land at JFK, LaGuardia or Newark airports. A
Pennsylvania parishioner loaned him a private jet, which landed at
The fire was in a lantern lit - during elaborate ceremonies in
Etchmiadzin - by candles that burn at the Khor Virab prison where
Gregory allegedly was held.
Every diocesan bishop in the world took fire home, and today, like
Barsamian, they will pass it along to young people in their cities
ALL THE PARISHIONERS at St. Vartan, and elsewhere, also can let a
little light shine - at home, work or wherever - as the cathedral
is giving everybody a tiny lantern with a little easy-to-light
It will make for an interesting moment for the faithful, who, for
the only time in their lives, will get both fire and water from an