I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. Birthday parties and Christmas presents made an exit from my life around age eight. I grew up with a single mom, who just didn’t have the money. She was a housekeeper and worked. She always worked.
One of the things that I love about traveling is learning about other traditions and being witness to how different people celebrate the holidays. Living in both Armenia and Ethiopia, back to back, was great.
My first Christmas as a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia was spent in London. My godson’s family met me there for the holiday. I was also able to visit an old Peace Corps Kenya friend, living an hour outside of London.
I spent my alone time hitting up the Victoria Beckham store on Dover Street and going down memory lane. I think this was my twelfth time in London, since my first visit there in 1984. At this point, I know my way around London better than Detroit. I was born and raised in Detroit. I never really returned, after leaving for the military.
Christmas in Armenia was the best. The celebration starts at New Year’s Eve and spills over into Christmas. Armenia celebrates the holiday in January. The Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus are believed to have brought Christianity to Armenia in the 1st century and Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity around 300 ce. At that time, Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6th.
My Armenian host family took me everywhere with them. New Year’s Eve, we’d visit family. Christmas, we’d visit family. There were birthday parties, weddings, parties for boys going into the military, or a baby’s first tooth. I learned so much about family get togethers from my Peace Corps families. My PST (Pre Service Training) host mom was the same. “Come on, kj, let’s go!” She would say and we’d head out to visit one of her friends. Now, when I think of holidays, I think of Armenia.
Like Armenia and many other Orthodox churches around the world, Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers January 7th to be the day of Jesus’ birth. For my first December 25th Christmas there, I was teaching. Like most of my life, it was just another work day. At the staff meeting, the teachers placed “Happy Christmas” signs on the walls, for me. They had no idea that I didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday. I kept the signs. They meant a lot to me.
For the holiday, I left my site and traveled to Addis Ababa. Like my site in Armenia, I was the closest volunteer to the capital. Once I was in the van, on the main road, the trip to Addis Ababa would take me two hours. Getting from my village to the main road and into a van could also take me two hours. Armenia was easier. Yerevan is around ten miles from Masis. A bus left the city center every 15 minutes and arrived at the metro station in Yerevan twenty five minutes later. It only took two Metro stops and I was at Republic Square.
Once at my bus station in Addis Ababa, I used a car service app for a ride to my destination. For Christmas, I booked a room at a Hilton, rather than the usual “Peace Corps” hotel. There was a Pizza Hut directly across the street from the hotel. The only meat option was chicken or beef. They were all out of beef. I would have to wait for my pepperoni fix. That Pizza Hut followed Ethiopian Orthodox Church rules, no pork products.
Last year, I spent Christmas in my dorm room, in Alaska. This year, my second time with Americorps, will be the same. I really don’t mind it. But, I must admit, post COVID-19, I will be celebrating Christmas on some beach in Vietnam or visiting some another Orthodox country to see how it measures up to Armenia and Ethiopia.
So, which countries are in between Armenia and Ethiopia, in terms of adopting Christianity? Albania and Georgia, here I come? —GGT