With Christmas around the corner, Kolkata too is getting decked up in the mood of festivities. December 25th has now become a festival for all. Bow Barracks near Bowbazar celebrates the spirit of Christmas all through the week. But do you know, that another community that had made Calcutta its home way back in the seventeenth century celebrates Christmas on January 6th? Yes, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on the 6th day of January and you can actually experience the Armenian Christmas celebration in the Holy Church of Nazareth at Armenian Street.
During the Armenian Christmas season, the major events that are celebrated are the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and His Baptism in the River Jordan. The day of this major feast in the Armenian Church is January 6th. A ceremony called “Blessing of Water” is conducted in the Armenian Church to commemorate Christ’s Baptism.
Armenians in Kolkata
Kolkata, true to her spirit had been the home to different communities like the Jews, Chinese and the Armenians. The Armenians first arrived at India in the eleventh century through Persia and Tibet. In the sixteenth century, they had settled at Agra at the express invitation of the Mughal emperor, Akbar. The emperor took a keen interest in their religion as well as the olive-skinned Armenian women!
Soon after Job Charnock founded Kolkata, the adventurous Armenian merchants arrived here. They built homes, business houses and pier beside the river (known as the Armenian Ghat till today). They had set up their first wooden chapel close to the pier in 1707. The Church of the Holy Nazareth was built in 1724 at what is now known as the Armenian Street. This church is said to be the oldest Christian place of worship standing in the city.
The British had always maintained a friendly relationship with the Armenians. They peacefully co-existed and traded in different industries. Later the Armenians moved into different professional employment and further, the Calcutta-Armenians became real-estate barons, engineers, contractors, jewellers and much more.
Presently, only about 150 Armenians live in the city including students and refugees from Iran. The Armenians have also intermarried with different castes in the city.
Armenian Church or the Holy Church of Nazareth, Kolkata
The Holy Church of Nazareth was built in 1724 on the old burial ground of the Armenian community. This is the oldest standing church in Kolkata. Over the years, the church has undergone much modifications and extensions including the clock tower. The white structure stands at the busy Armenian Street and is now surrounded on the outside by street shops. Sometimes, it even becomes difficult to find the gate of the church!
The church is surrounded by a graveyard containing a large number of graves. They believe that the departed souls will gain virtue when people walk over their graves.It is said that the city’s oldest Christian gravestone is contained within this graveyard. The grave in question is that of Rezabeebeh Sookias who departed from this world on 11th June 1630. Well, the authenticity of this fact is widely questioned. Many historians believe that the remains of Late Mrs. Sookias were removed to this graveyard at a much later date.
Armenian Christmas celebration in Kolkata
Regular services are held in the Holy Church of Nazareth and Christmas is celebrated on January 6. The Christmas mass, also known as the Divine Liturgy starts at around 9:30 AM and is conducted by the head of the Armenian Church along with a host of boys and girls from the Armenian school and college. The mass is conducted in the Armenian language. The grand altar of the church is beautifully decorated. Christmas choir sings delightful hymns in praise of the Christ. The affair is unique in its way and definitely a grand experience. Almost all the Armenian population gather this day at the Church to celebrate Christmas.
Why is January 6 celebrated as Christmas?
The date of birth of Christ is not precisely known. According to the ancient tradition of the church, was a culmination of events related to God’s Incarnation. This was not called “Christmas” but rather Theophany that means “revelation of God”, and was celebrated on January 6 by all Christendom. Christianity began to spread more effectively in the fourth century at Rome and one of the most important goals of Christian cultural revolution was doing away with the traces of paganism or transforming and Christianizing them. December 25 was celebrated as the birth of Sun God according to the pagan rituals. So The Roman churches changed the date to 25th December to override and subdue pagan feasts and practices dedicated to the Winter Solstice.
Armenian Orthodox Church although retained their oldest traditions. Their Christianity is of ancient Apostolic origins and they did not adopt this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices left in Armenia in the 5th century allowing them to remain faithful to the traditions of their forefathers. Also, Armenia was not a part of the Roman Empire.
To celebrate Christmas, the Armenians fast for a week before Christmas. The Christmas Eve meal is called khetum. It often includes dishes such as rice, fish, nevik (green chard and chickpeas) and yoghurt/wheat soup called tanabur. Santa Clause generally comes on December 31!
A few famous Armenians of Calcutta
Dr. Stephen Owen Moses founded the St. John’s ambulance courses in first aid and home nursing and campaigned for the first Red Cross ambulance in the city.
The Armenians too were great builders. T. M. Thaddeus had built the Park Mansion. J. C. Galstaun, Calcutta’s wealthiest Armenian had built a number of buildings that include Queens Mansion (earlier known as Galastaun Mansion), Harington Mansions and his own palatial residence that is now called the Nizam’s Palace. Stephen Court was built by another Armenian hotelier and connoisseur Arratoon Stephen.
Hope you enjoyed this post about a part of the history of Calcutta (or Kolkata, whatever you prefer). As they say, “We shape buildings; thereafter they shape us”.
Our heartfelt thanks to Rangan Da who initiated us to the wonders of Kolkata.