On January 5th, Armenians around the world ? including the approximately one and a half million Armenian-Americans living in the United States - celebrate Christmas Eve. At St. Mary?s Armenian Church, one of Washington, D.C.?s two Armenian churches, Christmas Eve services are embellished by a teen bell choir that performs both American and Armenian Christmas music. Here is more about the choir and its young members in today?s edition of New American Voices.

There are ten teenagers in St. Mary?s bell choir. All but two of them were born in Armenia and immigrated to the United States with their families within the last ten years. Choir director Leon Khoja-Eynatyan says participating in the group keeps the teenagers connected to their Armenian roots.

?They learn, first of all, they learn the Armenian liturgy, we don?t just play the music part, we also learn the words ? we don?t use them, but we learn the words because we need to know the text for better understanding of the music, and we play a lot of Armenian folk music.?

During the Christmas season, the bell choir performs seasonal music in church, and also holds concerts to introduce American audiences to Armenian carols.

Mr. Khoja-Eynatyan?s 15-year-old daughter Tatevik is a member of the choir. She says she loves both the musical and the social aspects of bell ringing.

?It?s lovely, it?s fun. I don?t know ? just the atmosphere of it all. I like the people. I love the group.?

Tatevik, who plans to be a psychologist when she grows up, says she wants to retain her Armenian culture and identity.

?Oh, all the way. I mean, I?ve been Armenian since I was born, so that would kind of make that? Well, I mean, there?s like an Armenian community here, and that helps. Like, you?re not alone.?

In addition to playing bells, Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan is also a percussionist, and usually the featured drummer during the bell choir?s rendition of one of America?s favorite Christmas songs, The Little Drummer Boy.

Another member of the choir is sixteen-year-old Seda Ambarzumian, who immigrated to the United States eleven years ago. Although she says she loves living in America, Seda also wants to retain her Armenian identity.

?I definitely do, because I think it?s a very important part of my life right now, to be able to say that I?m Armenian and to stand up for my Armenian beliefs. And I want that to continue on in generations for my family, also.?

Seda says one of the things she appreciates most about the United States is its ethnic diversity.

?I like that it?s a sort of melting pot of different cultures, and I like how everyone can preserve their culture while not living in their homeland.?

Seda Ambarzumian says that her American friends at school respect her for maintaining her culture in the American melting pot.

?They?re very supportive of it, because I always drill it into their heads, and I started an Armenian club at my school, so it?s kind of hard for them not to notice.?

While the members of the teen bell choir go to American schools and have many American friends, Seda says in their free time they tend to gravitate to activities with other young Armenians.

?We have ACYOA juniors club, which is just teenagers that are Armenian, and we participate in different things such as Bible readings, and hold different events, and also we have different Armenian activities. Different artists come and visit, and different people showing their talents. I like to do as much Armenian activities as possible.?

Among the numbers performed by the Armenian teen bell choir is another seasonal favorite, the Carol of the Bells, based on a traditional Ukrainian Christmas carol.

Carol of the Bells

Leon Khoja-Eytanyan organized the teen bell choir of St. Mary?s Armenian Church in Washington four years ago, shortly after immigrating to the United States. He is proud of the fact that it is the only Armenian bell choir in the world.

English Feature #7-38196 Broadcast January 5, 2004