BEIRUT: Lebanon hasn’t boxed up its Christmas decorations just yet, as the celebrations are just beginning for some. A large percentage of Lebanon’s prominent Armenian community celebrates their version of the holy day Tuesday, Jan. 6.
The sixth is Epiphany for most Christians, but Armenians use the day to celebrate a culmination of the season’s events.
For them, the sixth is Christmas, celebrating the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also symbolizes Epiphany, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Unlike the Orthodox and Protestants who follow the historic date of Armenian Christmas, the Armenian Catholics, however, follow the Catholic Church in Rome and celebrate on Dec. 25.
“They go with the [Catholic] pope and with Rome,” Zara Sirop Hagop said with a slight chuckle. Hagop is one of the local mukhtars in Beirut’s Burj Hammoud neighborhood.
While large sections of the Lebanese-Armenian population have moved out of Burj Hammoud over the years and integrated into other areas, the neighborhood is still strongly connected to the community through the ubiquity of Armenian restaurants, businesses, cultural centers and churches.
Christmas decorations are still hung over main thoroughfares, with white lights dangling in the shape of snowflakes, illuminating the streets and spreading Christmas cheer. Shops are decorated for the holiday, with many storefronts painted with the English words “Merry Christmas.”
“Geographically it is known as an Armenian neighborhood,” Hagop said. “There are many Armenians but there are also Shiites and Lebanese Christians, as well as many foreigners moving into the area.”
The reasons Armenians celebrate on the sixth are historical and traditional. Until the fourth century, the Catholic Church also celebrated Jesus’ birthday Jan. 6. But as Christianity spread into Europe, the day was merged with a Roman pagan holiday celebrated Dec. 25.
Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the birth of Christ Dec. 25 and Epiphany Jan. 6. Armenians, however, decided to stick with the traditional, historical and “correct” day for celebrating Christmas, as expressed by one person interviewed by The Daily Star.
Tuesday is a national holiday in Lebanon, meaning shops will be closed across the country, but in Burj Hammoud most establishments – 90 percent according to the local mukhtar – will stay closed Wednesday as well, as Armenian Orthodox and Protestants partake in a two-day celebration.
Taking a break from preparing for the Armenian Orthodox St. Sarkis Church’s 4 p.m. Mass Monday, 19-year-old Phillipe Jinian told The Daily Star about some of the customs his community participates in for Christmas. People will gather and sing hymns for the neighborhood Monday evening.
Sitting behind his office desk, Hagop said that the midnight carols bring joy to the community and are paired with music from accordions, guitars and other instruments. Here, they deliver the story of Christmas in a musical manner.
“The people go to each building in the neighborhood and sing the story of Jesus Christ,” Hagop said.
The next day, families come together to celebrate the occasion with food and holiday spirit.
“We gather and eat together [on Christmas Day],” Jinian said, adding that it is customary to prepare fish. Other traditional Armenian Christmas dishes include rice, wheat soup and nevik – a dish made of green chard and chickpeas. Lebanese Armenians, however, are likely to include a number of fusion dishes that have culminated from their time living in and integrating into Lebanese society.
A second Mass is often attended by families on Armenian Christmas Day. Unlike most Christians in Lebanon, however, the Armenian community doesn’t stop the party after Christmas.
“We celebrate tomorrow but also the day after tomorrow,” Hagop said, with a wide smile on his face.
Armenian families take part in a tradition that is unique to their culture on Jan. 7. They visit cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. Here, they pray and take the time to remember and spend time with those who have died.
“In Armenia they go live and spend the whole day there,” Hagop said. “They eat in the cemetery.”
Hagop said that the celebration in Lebanon is not as extravagant as those in Armenia, where it is an act that the entire nation takes part in.
After the day at the cemetery, a Mass is planned for the various Armenian churches. There are four Armenian Orthodox churches in Burj Hammoud alone and even more outside. Priests from the various houses of worship gather with the community to hold a large Mass at Burj Hammoud’s Nursing Home.
Also unique to the Armenians, Christmas gifts are traditionally doled out on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31. In Armenia, Christmas Day is more of a religious holiday therefore the gifts are handed out beforehand.
Chef Raymond Blanc’s Galette des Rois
This remarkably simple dessert is only served once a year to mark Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6. It is the custom to hide two little figurines or fava beans in the almond cream. The ones who find them will become the King and Queen for the day and of course have all of their wishes realized.
For the puff pastry
- 400 grams puff pastry, all butter, ready rolled
For the almond cream
- 75 grams butter, unsalted, at room temperature
- 75 grams icing sugar
- 75 grams Almond, powder
- 1 egg, free range/organic, whole
- 1 egg yolk, free range/organic
- 1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac
Cutting out the circles of pastry
You will get two sheets of pastry – 35 / 22.5 cm in a pack, so cut a 20 cm for the base from one sheet and a 22 cm circle for the top out of the other sheet; refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour.
Making the almond cream
Preheat the oven to 180°C. In a large bowl, whisk all the ingredients together and mix to a smooth texture; reserve in the fridge.
Making the galette
Spoon the almond cream into the center of the puff pastry reserved for the base. With a palette knife spread the cream into an even circle leaving a 2 cm gap from the edge. Brush the beaten egg yolk mixture around the 2 cm gap and carefully drape the top circle of pastry neatly on top, press gently to expel all the air and using your thumb seal the pastry all around the edge. Chill or deep freeze the galette for 1 hour to firm up the pastry and with a sharp knife, trim the edge of the galette to an even circle so that it rises evenly.
With the back of a knife crimp the outside edge of the pastry all around. Here you can use your artistic flair.
Scoring the galette & egg washing
Brush the galette with beaten egg yolk. With the side of a fork or back of a knife, start from the center of the galette and score a spiral right up to the edge of the pastry. Repeat this to achieve an attractive design (if you feel unsure you could just simply crisscross the top of the galette).
Cooking the Galette
Cook in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Leave it to rest for 5 minutes before serving.