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A Tree Grows in Jerusalem

For the first time, the Armenian Quarter has a public Christmas tree, part of efforts to bolster group’s identity in the holy city

Armenians have celebrated Christmas in Jerusalem’s Old City for over 1,000 years. This year, however, the celebrations will be slightly different. For the first time, a public Christmas tree has been set up for the community at St. James Convent.

According to Harout Sandrouni, a civil engineer who was born and raised in the Armenian Quarter, the public nature of the display breaks from the generally private spirit of the holiday.

“Traditionally, it was always celebrated in the family. We don’t have a lot of pomp surrounding Christmas like putting a tree out in a public space,” he told The Media Line.

The Armenian Christmas is celebrated on January 5 and 6, but the Armenians in Jerusalem celebrate Christmas eve on January 18.

“It’s been this way since the Ottoman days, so you cannot change it,” Apo Sahagian, an Armenian Jerusalemite musician, told The Media Line.

One aspect of the holiday that can be altered, however, is its communal celebration.

The public Christmas tree is a result of the efforts of the Armadner (“Roots”) committee, established earlier this year. The group has nine members who range in age from 23 to 36, including Sahagian.

They worked in conjunction with Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian, who also represents the community and runs the quarter’s administrative work, to organize the display.

“The whole point of the tree is to bring the community together, which is what Christmas is really all about,” Kegham Balian, vice chairman of Armadner, told The Media Line. “The organization serves as a bridge within the Armenian community of Jerusalem, creating dialogue between the different factions, both intra- and inter-communal.”

By initiating educational, cultural and economic activities for the quarter, Armadner hopes to ensure the continuance of the around 800-member community in East Jerusalem, in a city that holds great significance for Armenians’ identity and history.

“The Armenian Quarter is a very important aspect of Armenian life, nationally and globally. … Even Kim Kardashian baptized her kid here,” Sahagian said, referring to the reality TV star from California.

“In Jerusalem, we have a quarter and the Armenian Church,” he continued. “Here we have certain [access] to the big churches of the Holy Land, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher [where some believe Jesus was buried]. These privileges that we have come from us preserving our national heritage and religious sites that don’t exist in other parts of the diaspora.”

Sahagian said that there was sometimes a generational divide between the younger and older residents on how to foster a robust Armenian Jerusalemite culture, including regarding setting up the Christmas tree.

“The committee is composed of younger people, and we do approach how to trigger vivacity in a different way than the old-schoolers,” he said.

This is reflected in civil engineer Sandrouni feelings about the display.

“For some reason, this year … a committee of young people wanted to do some activities, including putting up a tree, which cost them a hell of a lot of money,” he said. “Figures are flying in the air: 50,000, 60,000 shekels [about $14,000 to $17,000]. … Whatever it was, I think it was unnecessary,” Sandrouni said.

Armadner would not comment on the cost of the tree.

Sandrouni said the Armenians contributed to the uniqueness and the “flavor” of Jerusalem.

“If I were an Israeli, I would make sure that I would take care of the Christians living here,” he said. “Can you imagine eating a salad with only cucumbers? It’s no longer a salad, it’s just cucumbers. The beauty of the salad is the carrots, tomatoes, lettuce; they give it flavor.”

Sandrouni has the support of members of the municipal government, including Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who believes in the value the Armenian community brings to the capital.

“The Armenian community is one of the most exotic communities in the city. We work very well together on infrastructural improvements for the Old City; we always have. We in the Jerusalem City Council respect and celebrate diversity in our city. We are very happy that they are constantly innovating their customs in their own community,” she told The Media Line.

The Armenian population of Jerusalem has been declining but with Armadner’s help, the community hopes to continue to contribute to the city’s character for centuries to come.