What do late night cemetery rendesvous, toy guns, inter-village judo tournaments and drunk driving all have in common? If I told you that it was Georgian Easter would you be surprised? I would have been, until I experienced it myself. If I had to summarize my Georgian Easter experience in one word, it would be “epic”.
“Aghdgoma” in Georgian, it’s the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Because Georgia is an Orthodox Christian country, it’s celebrated across the board as the most important holiday of the year. A lot of time is spent in church in the days leading up to Aghdgoma and it’s also important to know that the 40 days beforehand are spent in fasting by many Georgians. This fast (markhva) involves abstaining from alcohol, meat, dairy and oil, or some combination of these. Some fast for two days a week and others every day, depending on the discernment of their priest. The purpose of this is to deny themselves these common things in order to focus more on God and to experience sacrifice as Christ did on this earth. It’s such a commonly held practice that most restaurants in Georgia will offer a “markhva” option or two. I must say that, after living with fasting Georgians, it’s definitely a challenge!
To put this in perspective, In America many people celebrate Easter, but some of the time it’s only the commercial aspect of it. I and my family have always celebrated Easter for the same reasons as the Orthodox, but it’s never been this complex or long lived. I was very curious and excited to experience this celebration with my Georgian community, so excited in fact that I cut my trip to Eastern Turkey short to come back for the festivities. I can tell you right now that it was the right decision.
Through a series of transportation fails, I arrived in my village at precisely 10:00 pm Saturday, April 14, the day before Aghdgoma. My goal was to make it to the vigil church service that night. My host family had just left for the service in the next village, but luckily my host brother came back for me and I arrived only an hour late. My host sister hugged me and we tried to enter the church, but it was impossible because EVERYONE in the two villages was crammed into the tiny space. We had to resort to standing outside and looking in, which was still a crowded affair. Let’s just say I’m surprised nobody caught on fire because of all the candles. There were many beautiful chants interspersed with the priest (his title is Mamao) announcing triumphantly, “Kriste aghsdga!”, or “Christ has risen!”. At one point we carried our candles around the church three times, representing the number of the trinity. This service continued until 4:00 am, but I left with my family around 12:30. After my long day of traveling I could not stay awake any longer, but I wish I could have been there for the end when Mamao threw the red eggs into the air and the fireworks went off. This I only heard about from people who stayed.
The next day, Aghdgoma, I woke up very late and my host mother happily greeted me with, “Kriste aghsdga!” Throughout this day and the next this was the common greeting, along with “gilotsav” (“congratulations”). It was a very happy day as everyone relaxed and prepared for the next day’s supra, or dinner party. My family had been planning to host one for quite some time and it’s amazing the amount of work that goes into this endeavor. In fact, it was clear that my host mom had been making infinite amounts of food for the past two days. As she cooked and my host sister made multiple cakes, I tried to help as much as I could, though this is hard because of Georgian hospitality. I ended up “helping” by licking all of the frosting bowls – I didn’t complain. Despite this, neighboring women had been enlisted to cook various things and my host mom’s mother had come for the sole purpose of continuously doing dishes, which was actually a full days work.
After it got dark, my host sister and some visiting relatives told me we were going to the cemetery. Huh? Apparently this is an Easter tradition! I think the original idea was to spend time with departed loved ones (they are still alive in Heaven) but a lot of what I saw was not quite that. There were booths set up selling toy guns, cotton candy and ice cream… much like a carnival. Most people were gathered in small groups drinking beer and blasting loud music from their cars. Some people were gathering around graves praying, but they were outnumbered by the kids running around shooting people.
The next day we got all dressed up and headed, once again, to the cemetery! It was more of the same, but with less beer and more families gathered around graves. I also witnessed another strange thing: a judo tournament… in the cemetery! Everyone was gathered around cheering as the competing boys got bigger and bigger. I asked around and nobody knew why this was a tradition, but they said it happens every year.
After this was over we headed home, where the supra was almost ready. True to Georgian tradition, my host mom and her enlisted woman-force had been working all day to set up the amazing table. Family and friends came (about 20 people) and there was no shortage of dishes of food piled on top of each other all down the table. I would estimate that there were at least 100 plates, including these and everyone’s personal ones. Because the fast was finally over, it was finally time to drink lots of wine and gorge on as much food as possible. Among the many toasts were those to God, the Resurrection, family, departed loved ones, guests, the sick, babies and children… and I could go on! For each toast, the tamada (toast master) made a serious speech and it was elaborated upon by others. I still don’t understand every word, but the basic gist was clear: Georgians know what’s important and they place due emphasis on it. Every time they drink it’s for a good reason. Granted, some may take this pretty far, but it’s all in the name of toasting what’s dear to the heart.
As this supra began to wind down, a bunch of us moved on to another man’s house in my village for his supra (today EVERYONE was having supras). My host brother decided to drive us there, but seeing as he was very drunk I suggested we walk. Not possible. He would not accept this as an option and before I knew it I had gotten into a car with a drunk driver. To add to that, our family van doesn’t have fixed seats in the back, only unattached bench seats and random rolly chairs covered with blankets. This was not scary at all. We miraculously reached our destination safely, after everyone repeatedly yelled at him to slow down.
As if this wasn’t frightening enough, after that supra we were driven back across the village by my brother, who hadn’t exactly had much opportunity to sober up. Back at home, we found that a skeleton crew was still on our top porch toasting everything under the sun, but I was supra’d out so I went to bed.
The next day was filled with mini-supra after mini-supra, as there was still a ton of food left. These leftovers included paska cake, which is a traditional Easter bread cake, and red dyed hard boiled eggs. To eat these eggs, you have to first bash them against another person’s egg and whoever’s eggshell cracks loses. You do this until everyone has played and the winner is determined.
The following days were filled with yet more leftovers. For example, four days after Aghdgoma, my host father was still eating large, cold fish heads for breakfast. I politely refused his offer to share, even after he informed me that the heads are better than the tails and they are good for our vision. As for the supra aftermath, there are still huge piles of dishes everywhere and probably will be for another couple days. The production of a supra really is amazing.
So, Aghdgoma is over and now all that is left is fish heads and dirty dishes. It was the most memorable Easter I have ever had, and I’m so glad I was here to experience it. Although it might look on the surface to have been a gluttonous feast filled with alcohol and toy guns, I believe that these people really know how to celebrate something very important. After all, if it wasn’t a big deal they wouldn’t give it a second thought, much less a supra. Beneath every tradition, every toast and every greeting there is heartfelt meaning and one can learn a lot by taking a deeper look into these very unique Georgian traditions.