The New Testament is mute about the date of Jesus’ birth. Indeed, it may have occurred in the spring rather than shortly after the winter solstice since Luke records that shepherds were “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Traditionally shepherds in Palestine guard their flocks around the clock at the spring lambing time; during the winter months, the animals are penned in corrals, unwatched.
In Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem, unlike anywhere else, the birthday of the Christian messiah is celebrated three times.
In cities such as New York, London or Sydney, Christmas is celebrated on January 6 by Russians, Greeks, Serbs and other followers of the Eastern Orthodox churches, in addition to the December 25 holiday marked by Catholics and Protestants who belong to the Western church. But in Jerusalem the Armenian community continues to adhere to the Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on January 19. (In Armenia and its Diaspora, Christmas is celebrated on January 6.)
Why all the confusion?
The celebration on January 6 was formalized in 325, when Constantine – the Roman empire’s first Christian emperor – summoned the Council of Nicaea (now Iznik, in Turkey), and decreed that Christmas should be celebrated on the same day as Jesus’s epiphany, or baptism.
In 350, Pope Julius in Rome moved Christmas to December 25 to counter the popularity of the pagan Saturnalia festival – a public holiday celebrated in the family home with feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees.
The two dates became a factor in the dogmatic schism between the Eastern and Western Church. But the Armenians and Eastern Orthodox churches held fast to the traditional January 6.
Both dates were based on the somewhat inaccurate Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who introduced the solar calendar in 45 BCE. But the new Roman calendar was a tad off, causing the vernal equinox to slowly drift backward in the calendar year over the ensuing 16 centuries. Thus in 1578 Pope Gregory XIII lopped off 13 days and decreed that henceforth every fourth February would have 29 days – a reform known as the Gregorian calendar.
As the pope was Catholic – duh – it took the Protestant countries almost 200 years to follow suit, while Russia and Greece did not adopt this calendar correction until well into the 20th century. Thus the events known in the former Soviet Union as the November Revolution actually took place in October 1917.
The arch-conservative Armenians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem continue to mark the original date of January 6 plus 13 days – hence Armenian Christmas on January 19. – G.Z.