The Georgian Mystery of Christmas
Georgia became aware of the concept of Christmas in the early 4th century. One of the oldest nations in the world, famed for the abundance of gold and sorcery, became one of the first to embrace the Christian faith and turn this religion into a definitive part of its identity.
Text by Irina Bagauri
When it comes to Georgian Christmas, the ways in which Georgian Christianity has absorbed pagan traditions are quite peculiar – the closer you get to know Georgian Christmas customs, the more pre-Christian elements you encounter.
At first glance, though, modern-day Christmas celebrations in Georgia seem almost no different from the festivities in the rest of the Christian world – the same brightly lit city streets with the aroma of sweets in the air and familiar tunes all over the place in malls or waiting halls. Yet in Georgia, this globalized version of Christmas is preceded by older local traditions, melodies, and dishes unique in nature.
Many years and centuries ago, before Frank Sinatra rolled out his Christmas albums – in the 4th century, to be precise – Saint Ambrose of Milan composed the first Christmas hymn chanted, according to sources, during the first Christmas liturgy at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Scores of Christmas carols have been written since, some liturgical, others entertaining in content, performed by people who go from house to house, this way imitating Christ’s messengers and bringing the good tidings of Christmas to families.
“Alilo” is a hymn to joy, and numerous variations can be found throughout Georgia. Besides myriad liturgical versions, street “Alilo” singers chant it going from door to door on the festive night to herald the Birth of the Savior.
The main hymn glorifying Christmas in Georgia is known as “Alilo”. Its name must have derived from the Hebrew “Hallelujah” for “Praise the Lord”. This chant holds a special place in the history of Georgian polyphony, which UNESCO recognized as a monument of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011.
Similar to many other cultures, in the past the goal of these chants in Georgia was to share the story of the Birth in Bethlehem with those illiterate who could not read the Gospels, which is why the texts of Georgian “Alilo” pieces are usually simple and use almost a child’s language to tell the story of Christ’s Birth in Bethlehem on December 25, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the appearance of the Christmas Star, and the Gifts of the Magi.
The tradition of chanting Alilo carols has survived in Georgia’s regions and villages. Their coming to one’s doorstep is a true joy, which is why it only makes sense that “Alilo” heralds are generously rewarded. Some musicologists believe that “Alilo” chants are based on pagan tunes from the time before God was called Christ, when the glad tidings of His Birth had yet to be proclaimed. After all, that date, December 25, marked a pre-Christian festival celebrating the coming of winter. So, while some of the Christmas “Alilo” carols function as biblical narrators, the procession itself, besides being religious and festive, was often archaic Dionysian in character, a theatrical performance of sorts, with “Alilo” performers dressed as women, heralds with charcoal-painted faces, jesters, and comedians going from house to house, performing glorious melodies, having fun through the night – and that is the mystery of the feast coming full circle from paganism to Christianity, both coming as one contained within the Night of the Lord’s Birth.
A Special Date
We mention the special date of December 25 for Christmas, and in Georgia it’s indeed celebrated on the 25, but according to the Orthodox calendar and not the Western Gregorian calendar. Most of the Orthodox, including those in Georgia, use the original unchanged liturgical calendar, which the Western Christian and secular worlds changed to adjust for leap years. This change rewound the calendar, so that December 25 on the old calendar became January 7 on the new calendar. Recently, Georgian secular customs have been incorporating the Western Christmas date of December 25 more and more, with Christmas markets and fairs popping up across Tbilisi in mid-December. But the heart of Christmas in Georgia still falls
on that much older date of what is now January 7. Similarly, Georgians also celebrate New Years on both calendars, with enormous fireworks on what is now known as New New Years and smaller, but still big, family-oriented fireworks on Old New Years on January 14.
The Nutcracker and Christmas Lullaby
Back when Georgia was a province of Russia, another brilliant work was likely to have been created here in our country – arguably, the most famous Christmas music ever, The Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
After the country was annexed by Russia in 1801, Georgia, thanks to its climatic conditions and the diversity of its viniculture and gastronomy, quickly became the Empire’s southern paradise. The Romanovs built several summer residences in Georgia, including in Borjomi, a settlement in the Mtkvari River Gorge at 800 meters above sea level known for mineral waters and sulfur springs and surrounded by spruce- and fir-covered mountains.
Gradually, visiting our neck of the woods became a fashionable trend as it were especially among the artistic and literary communities throughout the Empire. Among the country’s visiting celebrities was Tchaikovsky, who came to Georgia five times and even dreamed of settling here for good. For the most part, the composer stayed in Tbilisi, but he also visited Borjomi in 1887 and it is here that he is rumored to have worked on The Nutcracker, a ballet commissioned by the great Marius Petipa for the Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
Borjomi’s unearthly beauty and the spruce-fir scenery seem to be made for the characters of Hoffmann to come to life in a magical Christmas setting. And Christmas music is unimaginable without a melody sung by the Virgin Mary to the Christ Child. There are thousands of versions of the lullaby for Christ, from folk tunes to those composed by the greats. In the same vein, a Christmas ballet would be unimaginable without a mother’s lullaby.
Tchaikovsky probably spent a lot of time looking for a suitable, touching melody, and ultimately found it in Georgia. He arranged one of the lullabies heard here and included it in The Nutcracker, though under a different name, “Arabian Dance”.
The new version of the melody and its renaming, caused serious concerns among Georgians, including Meliton Balanchivadze, the father of the great George Balanchine, who harshly criticized Tchaikovsky’s decision in the Russian press for “introducing a precious Georgian chant to the world under a different name.”
George Balanchine, back when he was a child named Giorgi Balanchivadze, and later when he became a dancer, frequently starred in The Nutcracker at the Imperial Theater in Saint Petersburg. After making a global name for himself as George Balanchine and being praised as one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, he staged his own version of The Nutcracker in New York, weaving into his signature choreography nostalgic melodies from childhood, including one heart-warming chant from his homeland, Georgia.
There are numerous legends out there to explain the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas. The Tree of Life was venerated in pretty much every ancient culture. Nobody knows for sure why a conifer was picked for the main Christmas plant, maybe because its triangular shape was identified by Christians with the fullness of the image of the Most-Holy Trinity. Christian tradition has it that the Cross of Christ was made from a pine or fir. Thus, conifers have come to symbolize the salvation of mankind and the particular feast in discussion.
The North European tradition of decorating a tree on Christmas must have gained a foothold in Georgia in the 19th century. Yet our own custom of chichilaki, a
fluffy white Christmas tree, originated much earlier in Western Georgia, where it was made from shaved branches of a hazelnut tree and decorated with fruits.
The chichilaki tradition is likely to be linked to the pagan cult of the sun. And although today it is Christian in meaning, still it is related to many superstitions. A chichilaki tree is believed to bring prosperity and abundance, and it is advisable to burn it before the Epiphany, so that it may take away all the sorrows a given family may have had.
According to Georgian tradition, the first chichilaki was made for the Christ Child by Joseph the Betrothed, who was a carpenter by trade. The chichilaki tree is also nicknamed the Beard of Basil the Great, because Bishop Basil of Caesarea is celebrated a week after Christmas on January 1. And the tree’s striking curls must have reminded ancient Georgians of the beard of this Holy Father who, in a way, turned into a Georgian Santa Claus.
One way or another, the popularity of the chichilaki tree is growing in leaps and bounds. It is a Christmas tree covered by numerous international periodicals and TV stations, and Georgian artists are working on its modern versions. Importantly, its production is environmentally friendly, because it is made from separate branches, not a whole tree, which is why it is quite plausible to suggest that one day, the chichilaki tree may transform into an international celebrity. Why not? Just have a look at it – you just cannot help adoring this light-colored fluffy beauty that makes the most beloved feast in the world even more festive.
Can you imagine Christmas without a Christmas meal? It is nearly impossible – in Georgia, at
least. Our country, famed for its cuisine and feasting traditions and hailed as the cradle of wine, has special treats and customs for a Christmas reception.
The cuisine of Georgia, a country on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, incorporates elements of many conquerors and civilizations, which makes Georgian dishes exceptionally diverse. Georgian Christmas-related gastronomic traditions vary by region. For example, in the eastern Georgian region of Kakheti, it is customary to slaughter a fattened pig on Christmas. In Western Georgia, in Guria in particular, double-crust crescent-shaped pies with egg stuffing are baked.
However, there are two all-Georgian dishes cooked once a year exclusively for Christmas, and these dishes are one of the reasons why even non-Christians or even absolutely non-religious people cannot wait for Christmas to come. These dishes are turkey satsivi with walnut sauce and gozinaki candy.
Walnuts are the key ingredients in both dishes. Gozinaki is a mix of walnuts and honey, crunchy, healthy, rich in calories, and boasting authentic flavors. And satsivi is a genuine masterpiece of Georgian cuisine, one combining the vertiginous aromas of Western Asian seasonings and the simplicity of European dishes, inviting non-vegetarian gourmets to dive into a whirlpool of gastronomic delight.
Making satsivi takes top-notch culinary skills and mastery. There are numerous variations, but the recipe we offer here was written down in Kartli in the 1930s
“There are two ways to do it. The first involves roasting chicken or smaller-sized livestock. Then walnuts and lots of onions are mixed and seasoned, adding eggs, salt, vinegar, pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon, and cloves. The other way is to cut a boiled turkey into pieces, place them in a pot, and add the walnut mix above. Let it cool off and enjoy.”
Soviet-era and Christmas missing from the calendar
For two centuries after Georgia’s annexation in the early 19th century, the country’s history was closely tied to Russia, being a province of the Russian Empire until 1917, when the Bolsheviks slaughtered the deeply religious Orthodox Christian family of the Tsar, abolished the Empire, and established the Soviet Union, persecuting religion in the republics of the newly established state. After three years of independence in Georgia, the Red Army conquered the country in 1921, triggering fierce repressions against Orthodox Christians and other believers.
Christmas, too, disappeared from the calendar. But because it was impossible to uproot the brightest winter holiday, this feast with its local traditions was moved to January 1, and that is how the traditional New Year’s Eve Grandfather Frost – a fictional character from Russia similar to Santa Claus – and the Snow Maiden came to be celebrated in the Soviet Union for the New Year’s. The Christmas Star, once leading the Magi to the Christ Child, was replaced with the five-pointed red Soviet star, and The Nutcracker suddenly morphed into a New Year’s Eve story. Strangely enough, even though the Soviet Union collapsed 29 years ago, and now the Christmas Liturgy is again served in Georgian churches, things, to some extent, remain the same. On January 1 both Grandfather Frost and Santa Claus frequently visit children in post-Soviet countries to bring them gifts and Christmas dishes are, for the most part, still served as well.
Still, there is something that the dark can never edge out, and that is the Mystery of Bethlehem and Holy Christmas Eve dwelling in people’s hearts, which cannot be replaced by any evil empire, or any Grinch on the face of the earth, no matter how hard they may try to steal Christmas.