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.
You know Santa, but do you know his cool Kartvelian counterpart Tovlis Babua (Papa Snow)? Tovlis Babua or Tovlis Papa is the Georgian spin on Santa Claus. Instead of coming from the north pole and delivering presents on the eve of Christmas, Tovlis Babua hails from the super frosty mountains of the Caucasus and delivers gifts all around Georgia on New Year’s Eve. Tovlis Babua’s outfit is made up of all-white clothing featuring a nabadi, a heavy cloak made from sheep’s wool.
Instead of chocolate chip cookies and milk, children leave out churchkhela, a traditional Georgian sweet made from nut varieties and a condensed grape juice.
image: Anatoli Vasiliadis/Facebook
One popular Christmas tradition in Georgia is placing a lit candle in the window. Before midnight on Christmas Eve, many Georgians will light a candle to place on their windowsill. The tradition is supposed to be symbolic of opening ones home to Mary & Joseph as the Christmas story says they traveled long and far with many people rejecting them. Hence the whole birth in a barn thing.
Alilo is another age-old Georgian Christmas tradition that is held very dear. On Christmas Day, January 7th, people from all corners of the country take to the streets in what’s called Alilo, a traditional Georgian Christmas parade of caroling. Many are dressed in religious costumes, some are dressed as characters from the Christmas story, and many are carrying Georgian flags.
This is an especially important tradition throughout Georgia as during the Soviet Union, any sort of Alilo (Alilo-ing? haha) was strictly forbidden. Fortunately, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tradition was revived and is now a huge highlight of the holiday season.
The New Year Mekvle
Similar to the ‘first-footing’ tradition found in Scotland and England, Georgia carries a set of superstitions surrounding the first guest to enter their home in the New Year. This person is called a mekvle. This person is typically chosen from the family’s close friends and relatives to enter the house after midnight and is thought to bring loads of happiness and prosperity to the home throughout the year.
Mekvles are supposed to enter through the door with their right foot first and bring lots of candy with them.
New Year Sweets
Speaking of candy, sweets are a huge deal around the New Year. Thought to bring good luck for the rest of the year, you’ll see them constantly exchanged throughout the holiday season. A week later on Alilo, when Christmas is celebrated, children in the parade receive tons of sweets and candies of every kind.
Pro tip: keep some candy on you following the New Year to exchange when you see friends or loved ones. Especially if you live in Tbilisi where running into friends and acquaintances on the street is just part of leaving the house
Taking place on January 2nd, Bedoba is a big part of the Georgian holiday season. The name itself means a Day of Luck. Legend has it that whatever you do on this day will set the tone for your entire year. So be sure to have a cheerful mood and have as much fun as possible. No negativity allowed.
Like all Georgian holidays, if there isn’t a feast, it didn’t happen. In Georgia, Christmas and New Year are both famous for their giant supras (feasts) that commemorate the special day. Holiday-oriented supras will have most of the usual suspects like mtsvadi, khachapuri, phkali, khinkali, and other Georgian faves. However, there are a few that specifically come around this time of year. Here are a few special Georgian dishes that highlight the holiday supra table.
Whole roasted piglet in adjika
Pork is a significant feature at the New Year supra. It is usually a whole roasted piglet that has been smothered in adjika, a traditional spicy chili paste. Local tone/თონე (Georgian bakeries) will roast them for you on the cheap, too. Simply bring them the pig, pay 10 or so lari, and they’ll tell you when to come back. Christmas Day supras typically feature a ton of meat dishes ranging from ojakhuri to mtsvadi to celebrate the end of fasting (for those who choose to fast).
Historically, pork is a symbol of luck in New Year traditions all around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.
One of the more popular dishes around Christmas and New Year is the classic Georgian satsivi. This chilled poultry dish consists of ultra-tender turkey (or in modernized versions, chicken) smothered in a thick garlicky walnut sauce. Its name actually comes from the word tsivi, which means cold in Georgian. Each region has its own twist on this recipe. But the main consensus is that it’s a cold dish of turkey in a walnut paste that comes together with walnuts, onions, garlic, and some other goodies.
In my opinion, of all the khachapuri, and there are so many, Guruli khachapuri or Guruli gvezeli (Gurian pie) may be the most underrated and undiscovered. Hailing from Guria, Georgia’s smallest region tucked away in the western mountains. Guria often overlooked by its Ajarian, Megrelian, and Imeretian neighbors, Guruli khachapuri is a beast in its own right. It’s a crescent pie full of cheese and boiled eggs.
I first tried this mostly holiday food at the ever-charming historic farmhouse, Komli, in the heart of Guria. I highly recommend a stay there.
Christmas and New year are neither complete without at least a few of these nutty treats. Gozinaki is one of my favorite Georgian candies and comes together with just honey and walnuts. You can find them in many bakeries around Tbilisi, but they are a staple around the holidays. Many families make their own for Christmas/New Year supras, and I plan to try my hand at it soon.
Lastly, nobody can spend 5 minutes in any Georgian market without discovering the magic of churchkhela. These sweets are a string of nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, and sometimes almonds. They are dipped several times into a concentrated grape or fruit juice then hung to dry.