Armenian Church Celebrating Christmas in January!

Bangladesh  – Jan 3 2024

Did you know Christmas is celebrated on January 6 at the Armenian Church in Dhaka? In fact, the Armenian Apostolic Church is an Orthodox Christian institution still practising a very old version of Christianity.

According to Liz Chater, heritage coordinator, Armenian Church Bangladesh, the exact date of Christ's birth has not been historically established — neither is it recorded in the Gospels. However, historically, all Christian churches celebrated Christ's birth on January 6 until the fourth century.

According to Roman Catholic sources, the date was changed from January 6 to December 25 in order to override a pagan feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun which was celebrated on December 25. Mithra or Mitra (Sun-god) is believed to be a mediator between god and man, between the sky and the earth and it is said Sun took birth in the cave on December 25.

At the time Christians used to continue their observance of these pagan festivities. To undermine and subdue this pagan practice, the church hierarchy designated December 25 as the official date of Christmas and January 6 as the feast of Epiphany.

Armenia was not affected by this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices in Armenia on that date and the fact that the Armenian Church was not a satellite of the Roman Church. Thus, remaining faithful to the traditions of their forefathers, Armenians have continued to celebrate Christmas on January 6 until today.

"At the Armenian Church in Dhaka, we do not have a service ourselves, but our friends from the local Catholic Church hold one on or around the January 6. We are very happy that our church is used on this special day. The doors of the church are open and welcome everyone who wants to celebrate this special occasion. There is no Armenian community in Dhaka, therefore we do not have a priest. However, we are very happy to share our church with other Christian churches in Bangladesh who wish to have a service at Christmas time," says Liz Chater.

The warden of the church is Armen Arslanian. He oversees every aspect of the administration and maintenance of the Armenian Church in Dhaka. Under his direction, a team of staff carries out various necessary work around the church and compound. 

"Upkeep and preservation are very important aspects of our work. Also, very important is our Michael Martin Food Assistance Program where we offer local families around us meals once a week.

The numbers for this programme are now nearly reaching 600 people and we are very happy to help everyone who needs it," Chater explains.

The big iron gate opens to the white stone graveyards of Armenians, who came to Dhaka around the 17th century. The church was built in 1781 on Armenian Street in Armanitola, which was then a thriving business district.

The church with arched wide, white doors and windows, gives a feeling of mystery shrouded in the history of a time gone by. Researches and studies point out that it was built around an Armenian graveyard and the tombstones there chronicle the Armenian life in the area. A small garden of local trees and flowers, adds to the sombreness of the place.

Inside the church, you see the pulpit enclosed by railings and it has a main section where all the prayer activities take place and two rectangular wings of sitting pews on either side. There is a spiral staircase leading to the second floor of the church, which has a small seating arrangement upholstered in red velvet. Legends have it that the clock on the tower of the church, could be heard four miles away, and people synchronise their watches with the sound of the tower's bell.

The Armenian Church in Dhaka is architecturally aesthetic and it transports you back to the period when Old Dhaka was the most sought-after trade centre. A visit there is a must, especially if you are a history buff, and this 6 January Christmas is the perfect time to re-cap a history lesson.

Due to the national election, the church authorities have deferred the mass time to a later day, which will be notified after the polls.