By Chris Caesar

Daily Pilot, CA
Jan 7 2008

Members enjoy the fact that the season's hustle and bustle is over
so they can focus on the true meaning of the birth of Christ.

Celebrating his 60th Christmas this year, Father Moushegh Tashjian of
St. Mary's Armenian Church in Costa Mesa has noticed a few differences
between the modern Christmas celebration and the ones he enjoyed as
a child in Armenia.

For one, he said, he hardly remembers the presents he received during
the holiday's gift exchange - children would get a single toy under
their pillow, typically on New Year's Day, and piously spend the
day ruminating on the religious significance of Christ's birth and
his revelation.

Not so much anymore, he jokes. Tashjian chuckles as he recalls bumping
into a family from his congregation at Fashion Island, waiting to
get their pictures taken with Santa.

"Both brothers had a wish list, and I looked at it and said,
'My gosh!' There must've been 30 or 40 items, including a Plasma
television!'" he said. "I had to ask him: is this your list, or your
father's list?"

Nevertheless, the holiday still bears some traditional elements
that the church has celebrated for centuries - most obviously, its
celebration of Christ's birth on Jan. 6, as opposed to the widely
acknowledged Dec. 25.

The difference is attributable to a number of historical factors,
including Armenia's relative detachment from the Roman Empire's
influence in ancient history.

It was the Pope who changed the date of Christmas, by decree, in the
5th century, as well as a general cultural reverence for religious
tradition, Tashjian said.

"We kind of like it: All the hoopla, hustle and bustle is behind and
you just focus on the real true meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ,"
he said. "You never worry or think about exchanging gifts - just the
liturgy, the message, the worship."

Southern California is well-known as having the largest Armenia
population in the United States - indeed, some say, outside of Armenia
itself. Los Angeles County is home to approximately 500,000 Armenians,
while Orange County maintains a population of around 20,000.

Religious Armenians will spend their Christmas mornings in Church,
where they participate in a unique ceremony symbolizing the birth and
baptism of Jesus Christ. A cross, representing Christ, is placed in
water and marked with holy oil from dove-shaped pitcher, blessed by
the church's supreme patriarch in Armenia. Hymns and other acts of
worship are also practiced.

Typically, Tashjian says, churches will get together for large social
gatherings following the mass, and enjoy each other's company over
traditional meals - including fish, pilaf, topik ( a side dish
consisting of chickpeas, onions, sesame seed oil, lemon juice,
spices, and sometimes walnuts, Tashjian's wife Sylvan explains),
and sweet breads.

Children often perform a nativity scene, and believers greet each other
in the traditional Christmas fashion: "Christ is born and revealed,"
with the reply "blessed is the birth and revelation of Jesus Christ."

"This is the message of the Armenian Church," Tashjian explains.