Christmas worldwide is celebrated on December 25th. But not Georgia. Georgians celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7, but the main festive occasion- feasting with family and giving gifts, is held on New Year’s Eve from midnight. Why is it so different? The reason is that the Georgian Orthodox Church, much like those in Russia and Ethiopia, use the old ‘Julian’ calendar for their festivals.
A normal year in Georgia, meaning one without the lockdown restrictions which are putting a bit of a damper on things as they are elsewhere in 2020, on the day of (Georgian) Christmas, January 7th, hundreds of people take to the street in Tbilisi to either participate in the church Alilo parade, or to watch. Alilo sees choir boys and clergy, followed by a long snake of the devoted, holding icons and Georgian flags, heading to the main cathedral, Sameba. An extra motivation for children to take part is that they get sweets!
Georgia even has its own Christmas tree, called the ‘Chichilaki’. Dried hazelnut or walnut branches are cleaned and slowly and expertly shaved into long curly strips to form a tree (ranging from 30cm to 1.5 meters), which it then decorated with baubles, sweets and dried fruit. A new one must be bought every year, as, by tradition, the chichilaki is burnt one day before the Georgian Orthodox Epiphany, on January 19 to clear the household of the “demons” and troubles of the year. Most Georgians nowadays opt for the “Western” fir tree, be it artificial or real, with fewer and fewer bothering with a chichilaki…although we have a feeling that after 2020, the ceremony of burning away troubles will be very popular!
And onto Santa. Yes, the Georgians have their own Santa too! “Tovlis Papa” or “Tovlis Babua” (in western Georgian dialect), which translates as “Grandfather Snow” brings the children their presents on New Year’s Eve, usually while the children are outside watching the fireworks at midnight. Tovlis Papa, unlike the West’s jolly red round-bellied Santa, comes dressed all in white (including a hat), with a traditional Georgian sheep-wool hat and a native ‘nabadi’, a heavy, warm felt cloak.
Legend says that on New Year’s Eve, Tovlis Papa comes down from his home in the Caucasian mountains to tour Georgia delivering treats and sweets to all the children in the country. The children return the gift-giving by leaving out “churchkhela” (the Georgian “snickers” made with nuts and hardened grape jelly).
All in all, the Georgian Christmas and New Year traditions make for an interesting experience if you are celebrating with them, with Georgia once again proving it is one of a kind!
BY KATIE RUTH DAVIES
Photos from ‘Georgia About’
31 December 2020 14:16