When I first arrived in Georgia more than two years ago I was immediately thrust into a holiday celebration which at the time I knew nothing about. It was Giorgoba. First, a little history.
Saint George’s Day (known in Georgia as Giorgoba, literally “day of George”) is one of Georgia’s most popular holidays, celebrated twice annually on 6 May and 23 November. Saint George is among the most famous of Christianity’s martyrs, and for Georgia the national patron saint. Saint George’s Day is celebrated on various days in most European countries.
Giorgoba was instituted by Saint Nino in the fourth century AD. Saint Nino was born in the Roman province of Cappadocia. After living in the Roman Empire most of her life, most accounts say that Saint Nino traveled to the Georgian Kingdom of Iberia in 320 AD and began preaching Christianity. Saint Nino is believed by Orthodox Christians to be a relative of Saint George. The king of Iberia, Mirian III, declared Christianity an official religion in 327 AD. He declared Saint George the patron saint of the kingdom, and throughout the subsequent centuries the celebration of Giorgoba became one of the pivotal events of the year.
Saint George is venerated among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Oriental Orthodox churches. In Eastern Orthodox tradition he is depicted in an iconographic emblem slaying a dragon from a horse, which Georgia adopted as its coat of arms, and which appears on religious paintings, souvenirs, and trinkets in virtually every Georgian church.
Giorgoba feasts are an important part of family life in Georgia. On this holiday families gather for supras and many toasts are performed honoring the patron saint and all those who bear his name.
Back in 2011, barely a few weeks into my stint in Javaxi, a small village in Kvemo-Kartli near Dmanisi and the Armenian border, I experienced Giorgoba firsthand. My host family took me to their grandmother’s house in a nearby village, actually only a few hundred yards from Dmanisi’s famous archaeological site (we could see it from the backyard). Before the feast we visited the church for a baptism.
I was introduced to a dizzying amount of new faces, and at the time I was still confused as to when it was socially appropriate to kiss someone’s cheek as a greeting—or hug them, or shake their hand, or what?
But my host family’s extended family proved friendly and patient to my ignorance of their culture and language. They delighted in watching me taste dish-after-dish, and on the thirty-foot long dinner table this became a challenge for my stomach’s operating capacity. Nevertheless, nearly everything was delicious, and I forced myself to make room. I especially loved the tolma, a popular Balkan and Caucasian dish consisting of meat and spices wrapped in cabbage or grape leaves and then boiled. I remember the juices from the tolma covering my plate, using my bread to soak it up, and looking around the room at all the laughing faces and everyone enjoying each other’s company and being content.
Toward the end of the night, as about half of the fifty guests had already left and I’d seen the wine jugs refilled three or four times, a few men started dancing and someone turned up the CD player. They clapped their hands as they danced next to the table, a few children joining the show. Then the coffee and cake was brought out and I knew the night was coming to a conclusion. I fell asleep in my host family’s Lada as we drove back home, happy and full of great wine and food.
My first Giorgoba supra—it’ll rank among my top ten or so experiences in Georgia.