When I first arrived in my village in Kvemo-Kartli two years ago I’d already decided to stay in Georgia over the winter. I’d come to Georgia in mid-October and it’d have been premature to go back home after only two months—and besides, I thought I’d be a great opportunity for traveling around the country, experiencing the holiday celebrations, and relaxing next to a fireplace reading books.
The temperature in the village dropped off suddenly that December, and several snowstorms dropped quite a load all over the countryside. We had a terrific fireplace in the middle of the living room, with the sofa and the chairs gathered around it. I found it enthralling to be in a remote village in the wintertime. Winters in my homeland were much colder, and it snowed much more, but it seemed more severe in the village simply because we only had a fireplace instead of gas heating, and we had heavy wool blankets and layered clothing instead of modern insulation. Yet we also had Georgian food and wine, and the approaching holidays, to warm us up.
The Georgian holiday season is different than in Western countries, but recognizable. Christmas comes after New Year’s, on January 7th. The Georgian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, which also means that traditional New Year’s is on January 13th, although the modern day for New Year’s (i.e. January 1st) is the biggest holiday of the year for Georgians.
Whereas in North America and Western Europe New Year’s is a secular holiday, usually bringing cocktail parties, in Georgia New Year’s is a cultural and religious holiday intended for family feasts. Christmas and New Year’s mix various Georgian and Western traditions together. Santa Claus makes an appearance, but he’s called Grandfather Snow and wears traditional Georgian clothing. Christmas trees are displayed in houses, offices, and schools, but with an emphasis on New Year’s, rather than Christmas itself. Nevertheless, there’s one big similarity: the holiday season is a time for relaxation, family gatherings, and lots and lots of food.
A big feast is the central part of any Georgian holiday—it simultaneously shows hospitality, wealth, success, skill, and love to family, friends, and guests. Before New Year’s a Georgian household resembles a catering kitchen behind schedule on a massive order—women and girls run back and forth between the kitchen and pantry with hands caked in flour, pots and pans line up on the counter-tops and tables, and there’s a general sense of disorder and panic. But everything comes together perfectly—all the chaos dissipates before the supra begins, and the only thing on display is a wide selection of dishes stacked onto each other in a dizzying arrangement of appetizers, salads, main courses, side dishes, and desserts. New Year’s feasts are elaborate and filled with sweets and cakes. The lavishness of the food is important because it symbolizes prosperity for the coming year. Common dishes include khatchapuri, mtsvadi, satsivi (a walnut paste for dipping bread), and churchkhela, a dessert made by tying nuts to a string and then dipping them into boiling grape paste. Making churchkhela is a frequent activity in the days leading up to New Year’s, and has itself become a symbol for the holiday season, much like candy canes or pumpkin pie.
The concept of fate is strongly linked to the feast. Those who believe this will be especially cheerful and friendly in the hope of creating a happy year ahead of themselves and others. In accordance to this belief, a great amount of importance is placed to the first person to come into one’s house on New Year’s. If that person is a kind and faithful person, he will bring good luck upon the household for the next year. This person is called a mekvle. Those said to have “happy feet” are invited to Georgian households to provide good luck for the family. It’s not uncommon for Georgian families to bend the rules of this tradition by allowing their father to simply go outside and come back into the house, rather than take the chance of an unlucky person arriving.
My first Georgian New Year’s was a textbook example, but I only realized this in hindsight. At the time everything was novel and unique. I knew very little about Georgian customs spare what I’d gleamed from my phrase-book’s introduction. I sat at the table with my host family. Only my host family’s immediate relatives were at the table. At midnight we popped a bottle of sparkling wine and went out into the freezing night to light fireworks. All around the village in the white landscape I saw streaks of rockets ascend into the sky.
I missed the next holiday season in Georgia because I went back to the United States during the December-January school break. But this year I’ll stay in Georgia, and I’m eagerly looking forward to enjoying the holiday season once again.