Friday, December 23, 2011

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Christmas truly is my favorite time of the year… decorating, shopping, baking, wrapping, putting presents under perfectly lit trees. I love it all! Not to mention waking up on Christmas morning with sweet little angels who can't wait to see what Santa brought! 

Sydney in her school's Christmas pageant 

I knew when I signed up for the Peace Corps that I would miss not one, but two, Christmases – and it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. But that certainly doesn't make it any easier. Yes, I thought about going home, but a part of me isn't sure if I could say goodbye to my family twice or, let's be honest, leave the comforts of home. And besides, the thing I love the most about the Peace Corps is having the opportunity to be completely immersed in a new culture, especially one as old as Georgia's. So while I know it's going to be extremely difficult to miss Christmas at home, I'm also looking forward to celebrating this magical holiday in a whole new way: Georgian style. 

The Georgian Orthodox Church still follows the Julian calendar, so they actually celebrate Christmas (shoba) on January 7 and New Year's (akhali tseli) on January 14. The night before Christmas, all of the churches in the country begin the solemn liturgy. In Tbilisi, it is held in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, which I think is one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Candles are lit in every house and placed near the window so the lights are visible to passers-by, which is done in remembrance of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem.

After the service, a festive and entertaining parade called Alilo (which is a modified pronunciation of Alleluia) begins. Priests and parishioners (and anyone else who is interested) walk down the street singing carols, and carrying religious icons, crosses and banners high above their heads. Thus, they carry the good news about the birth of Christ. Most of the participants in the Alilo are children, and the adults stand on the street handing out sweets.  

Holy Trinity Cathedral

The western custom of the Christmas tree is increasing in popularity, but mostly in the bigger towns and cities. In small villages, you will rarely see our traditional green tree. Instead, a lot of families will have handmade wooden trees called chichilaki, which are made from young walnut branches shaved so that long, twirling laths hang down vertically, like the wisps of an old man's beard. On the eve of the Epiphany (January 19), the tree is burned to ensure good luck and bad memories from the previous year are thrown away with its ashes.

Twirled walnut branches

And yes, there is a Santa Claus! But in Georgia, he's called "tovlis papa," which translates as "Grandfather Snow." Tovlis Papa is traditionally portrayed with a long white beard and dressed in a national costume with a fur cloak. He looks a lot like our Santa, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a workshop in the North Pole or flying reindeer. As for gifts, Georgians don't practice the same tradition of buying Christmas gifts for relatives, friends and coworkers. Instead, they typically buy gifts for children and give them on January 1. 

Tovlis Papa
So, no Santa coming down the chimney on December 25… no presents… no blue spruce with twinkling lights… no eggnog… no stockings. But, I will be surrounded by tons of food and wine, and wonderful people who have welcomed me into their lives. And isn't that what Christmas is all about anyway? However you celebrate this holiday season, I hope you and your families have a very Merry Christmas!

P.S. Don't feel too bad for me… I will still be having an American-like Christmas in Tbilisi with Gus on December 25th, complete with classic Christmas movies, presents sent from home and a real fireplace. We *are* still American, after all… 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating to learn about their traditions! Merry Christmas!