Raffi Kendirjian clearly remembers celebrating Christmas Eve as a boy growing up in Beruit — the family gathered at the home of an elderly relative, broke fast and waited for the parish priest and council members to make the rounds through the neighborhood.
"We waited for the groups to come over, knock on the door, and once the door is open they start singing the hymn announcing the birth of Christ," said Kendirjian, a La Crescenta resident and volunteer with the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America.
The centuries-old traditions continued Wednesday night and into today as thousands of Armenian Christians crowded local churches and private homes to mark Christmas, celebrated by the community on Jan. 6.
"It is a joyous day," said Mashdots Jobanian, diocesan director of Christian education.
At Glendale Adventist Medical Center on Wednesday, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, who leads the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, blessed holy water and gata, an Armenian sweet bread traditionally prepared at Christmas. Dozens of hospital staff members and patients gathered for the occasion.
"We wanted to do this because we have patients who are not able to attend mass…and this is one of the most important Armenian holidays," said Ramella Markarian, director of physician development.
Derderian then visited bed-ridden patients, delivering blessings and gata in person.
"To me personally, that is the smell of Christmas," said Talin Mangioglu, district representative for state Sen. Carol Liu, as the aroma of the gata spread through the room. "It just fills your house."
The local celebration of Armenian Christmas will continue on Jan.12 when the Armenian National Committee Glendale Chapter hosts a celebration at the Krikor and Mariam Karamanoukian Glendale Youth Center. Attendees are asked to bring two toys to be donated to needy children.
The Armenian Christmas celebration comes long after most Americans have tucked away the decorations and pulled down the tree, said Glendale Adventist Dr. Steven Kamajian. But the timing gives an excuse to extend the holiday season just a little bit longer, and to reflect on the year to come.
"The tide of marketing and taking [presents] back and getting the right size, all that is over," Kamajian said. "The New Year's has past and a new beginning is upon you."
The Christmas celebration, established in the 3rd century, was originally celebrated on Jan. 6 by all Christian communities, Jobanian said. In the 4th century, the Roman Catholic Church moved the celebration of the birth of Christ to Dec. 25 to overlap with a pagan celebration. Roman Catholics and other western Christian denominations continue to celebrate Jan. 6 as the Epiphany, or the baptism of Jesus.
But many eastern Christian churches, including the Armenian church, celebrate the original date as both the birth and baptism.
"During this celebration, we bless the water as a symbol of his baptism," Jobanian said. "And we get a portion of this water and we take it with us back home."
Jan. 6 is proceeded by seven days of fasting, traditionally broken following Christmas Eve mass at gatherings of family and friends, Jobanian said.
"It is a time for families to visit each other and celebrate and announce to give the good news of the birth," he said.