Christmastime in Georgia is truly something magical. Tbilisi’s streets are decked out in twinkling lights. There are holiday markets on just about every corner and chichilakis, spruce, and the unmistakable air of holiday cheer take over the capital. Being a deeply religious nation, Christmas goes far beyond the realms of mulled wine, gift exchanges, and the mistletoe for many Georgians. It’s a time when families gather for supra, take to the streets for carols, celebrate the end of fasting, and of course, commemorate the birth of Christ. Religious or not, wherever you are in the world, there are plenty of Georgian Christmas traditions that you can incorporate into your own holiday season this year.
Ollie featuring a chichilaki.
Like many other Orthodox Christian nations, Georgia follows the Julian calendar meaning their Christmas falls on January 7th. Fortunately for ol’ westerners like myself, that just means a longer and more fun holiday season that lasts well past the New Year – so no complaints here. This will be our second holiday season spent in Georgia. And while Christmas will no doubt look very different this time around with the country locked down due to covid with periodic lifts over the holidays, it’s still *the most wonderful time of the year.*
How to say Merry Christmas in Georgian: გილოცავ შობას // Gilotsav Shobas (gee-loht-sav show-bas)
Religion aside, at its core Georgia is a nation of tradition, and Christmas is no exception. Many customs come with a distinct sense of pride as they were banned from practice in the Soviet era, which, relatively speaking, was just yesterday. From mythical snow grandpas to hazelnut tree bonfires and boiled egg pie, there are more than a few interesting traditions that surround a Georgian Christmas. Here are a few you can incorporate into your holiday season.
Chichilaki are Georgian Christmas trees made from hazelnut and sometimes walnut trees. The stub of wood is shaved again and again until it creates a pseudo tree shape. Think curling ribbons but hundreds of times and on bark.
The roots of the chichilaki can be traced back to pre-Christian Guria and Samegrelo, two regions in western Georgia. It began as a symbol similar to the tree of life and was primarily used to celebrate the onset of the New Year. Over the centuries, it has remained an important symbol and has been adopted by Orthodox Christians who continue to keep the tradition alive. Most chichilaki are decorated with red berries, dried fruit, and sometimes even churchkhela. Traditionally they are ceremoniously burned just before the Orthodox epiphany to symbolize the end of the previous year’s troubles.
I think this is such a beautiful representation of Georgia’s ancient pagan ways that have managed to survive even in a nation as notoriously Orthodox as Georgia. See how they are made here.