Georgian holidays strongly reflect the country’s unique traditions and its demographics. First, as more than 80% of Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, the strong influence of the church can be felt in the full public holiday cycle and its preponderance of Orthodox holidays. We can also see Georgia’s long drive for independence reflected in its holidays, primarily in the near-absence of most holidays that had been proclaimed by the Soviet authorities. Most of all, however, we can see many fascinating ancient traditions, once suppressed under the USSR, reviving to popular acclaim.
In Georgian: ახალი წელი (akhali ts’eli)
December 31 – January 1
(days off: Jan 1 – Jan 2, 2023)
New Year’s Eve in Georgia takes up a special spot in the calendar. On the night of the 31st, crowds gather in brightly-lit streets and set off their own fireworks. Even in the capital city of Tbilisi, it is the people who put on their own displays, although things generally remain quite safe. Central squares will almost always have a Christmas tree-like structure in them.
On the night of the 31st, friends and family gather around a table for a magnificent supra – a traditional Georgian feast. In a New Year’s Eve supra the most common main dish is satsivi, a turkey stew cooked in walnut sauce. Amongst many other traditional delicacies, the most popular dessert is gozinaki, made of walnuts and honey. Dried fruits are also a must.
As throughout the former Soviet space, gifts may be given on New Year’s. However, the importance of gifts in Georgia takes a backseat to eating and enjoying the company around you. Even in families that practice the tradition of Tovlis Babua, a Georgian equivalent of Santa Claus, Tovlis Babua typically brings treats for the children and not gifts. Tovlis Babua, whose name translates to “Snow Grandfather,” is a mythical white-beared man in traditional Georgian dress and a white robe who lives high in the Caucasus Mountains
On the first of January, each house should receive a dear guest, and preferably one who had had good luck or success the year before. The “mekvle,” or first-foot, is a tradition still practiced by many in which the first guest who enters the house is believed to set the tone for the rest of the year. The second day of January, known as the “bedoba,” or “day of faith” is also important. If the day is spent quietly, your year shall be peaceful. For an active year, spend your day moving.
Georgians will not uncommonly spend the whole first week of the year visiting friends and relatives. In fact, the first three weeks of January are filled with important holidays (see below), which stretch the “New Year Holidays” into a long and joyous event.
In Georgian: შობა (shoba)
(days off: Jan 7)
Because most Orthodox holidays follow the Julian calendar, which differs from the Gregorian calendar used by most Western religions, the dates of religious holidays can differ. Such is the case of Orthodox Christmas, or “shoba,” as it is locally known. Christmas Eve takes place on January 7th, because the two calendars currently differ by two weeks.
In Georgia, this special religious holiday has preserved ancient customs. For instance, the Georgian version of the Christmas tree is the “chichilaki” which has been nominated for UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. It consists of a dried hazelnut tree branch, shaved and formed into a distinctive “beard.” It is typically decorated with dried fruits, candy, and flowers. According to some, the beard is supposed to be reminiscent of the one worn by St. Basil, who visits Georgian children on Christmas, bearing presents.
Some people make their own chichilaki every year, but more often today it is made by semi-professionals who then sell them in holiday markets. The chichilaki is traditionally burned on Epiphany Day (see below).
Sometimes the chichilaki is set up in the home alongside a green New Year’s tree. However, many now use only the chichilaki. Georgia’s forests are legislatively protected and unregistered cut trees carry heavy fines. Many Geogians also argue that the chichilaki are more humane and sustainable – as they are made only from branches cut to improve the health of the living tree.
On Christmas Eve, it is customary to attend mass at midnight. After this service, families return to their homes and enjoy supra (a traditional Georgian feast) under candle lights. For many Georgians who rigorously follow Orthodox customs, this is the end of a 40 day fasting period and the beginning of two weeks of celebrations. A popular dish for this supra is satsivi, a poultry dish cooked in walnut sauce.
On Christmas Day morning, there is a sort of caroling procession referred to as Alilo. In the capital of Tbilisi, this is an exceptionally big part of Christmas celebrations. Families go out to the street, often in traditional dress, to sing old and new folk carols, some containing humorous lyrics. Children often dress up as angels and other religious figures. Alilo originated in the fifth century. After being officially banned by the Soviets, it was returned to the list of popular celebrations and is today again a cherished part of Georgian Orthodox Christmas.
Old New Year
In Georgian: ძველი ახალი წელი (dzveli akhali ts’eli)
(not a public holiday – no day off)
When the Soviets switched the USSR from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, there was much debate amongst the Orthodox faithful about which calendar should be followed for holidays. Although New Year is not an Orthodox holiday, most Soviet citizens took advantage of the several day discrepancy between the two holidays to duplicate one of their favorite holidays: the New Year.
Today, Old New Year is common throughout the former Soviet Union and is celebrated with food, sometimes small gifts, and small family celebrations.
Orthodox Epiphany Day
In Georgian: ნათლისღების დღე (natlisghebis dghe)
(days off: Jan 19)
The Orthodox Church celebrates the Epiphany Day, also known as The Feast of Theophany, on January 19th. This date celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, considered to be ritually clean and holy. As a culture which honors Orthodox tradition, this is an important holiday in Georgia.
On this day, the chichilaki, or Georgian Christmas tree, is burned in a ritual meant to purify oneself from any bad luck accumulated over the past year.
Despite the cold, it is traditional to take an “Epiphany dip” outdoors on this day, which is thought to help purify the individual in body and spirit. In the city of Batumi, many gather on the beach at midnight to run into the Black Sea, which is blessed by the local Archbishop for the occasion. Hundreds gather for this ritual, and every year a large team of rescuers are mobilized in the area to ensure celebrations are carried out safely.
On this day, many children are also baptized – a couple’s third, forth or fifth child may be baptized by the Patriarch on this day. This tradition was started by the current patriarch to encourage Georgians to have larger families as the Georgian population is currently aging and shrinking.
This day should be spent with one’s godchildren and godparents, honoring the traditions of baptism and water purification of sins.
In Georgian: დედის დღე (dedis dghe)
(days off: March 3rd)
Mother’s day is celebrated on different dates in different countries. In Georgia, it is celebrated on the 3rd of March every year – a public holiday for all to appreciate. Georgia’s first president declared it a public holiday in 1991, and it has remained as such.
This is a day to promote appreciation for mothers’ roles in the family, and as such it is typical to offer flowers, jewelry, and similar gifts as symbols of love and respect.
When this holiday was first suggested, it was intended to replace International Women’s Day, which was regarded as a “soviet holiday” to be displaced by something more “western.” However, in the end, Mother’s Day was adopted and International Women’s Day kept, giving Georgia two very similar public holidays very near each other.
International Women’s Day
In Georgian: ქალთა საერთაშორისო დღე
(kalta saertashoriso dghe)
(days off: March 8rd)
International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8th. This is a holiday entirely dedicated to women, filled with special gifts and courteous celebrations.
After the fragmentation of the USSR Georgia banned many Soviet holidays, International Women’s Day included. Instead women were celebrated on Mother’s Day – the 3rd of March. This became controversial as it seemed to overshadow single and childless women, and thus the holiday was reinstated.
It is customary for men to gift flowers to their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and any other important women in their lives. Other popular gifts include jewelry, chocolates, and letters of appreciation. It is a day to make women feel special and loved, hence men show gratefulness for all and any women in their lives.
As per tradition, holidays in Georgia are often sealed with a toast. For International Women’s Day, many opt to open their chacha – a traditional Georgian brandy saved for special occasions.
National Unity Day
In Georgian: ეროვნული ერთიანობის დღე
(erovnuli ertianobis dghe)
(days off: April 9th)
The Day of National Unity in Georgia takes place on April 9th, and commemorates two important dates for Georgian independence. First, it remembers the Tbilisi massacre of April 9th, 1989 which was a violent crackdown on a peaceful protest opposing Soviet rule. It also marks the passing of the Georgian Declaration of Independence, which happened exactly two years later on April 9th, 1991.
Every year the families of the Tbilisi massacre victims gather by the Parliament Building in tribute. Many victims were young students who aspired to see a united, sovereign Georgia. After their deaths, the country entered a 40 day mourning period and workers all over the country began striking. It helped unite and motivate the country in their drive for indepence.
In 2022, the Georgian President also made use of this date to pardon inmates.
Orthodox Easter & Good Monday
In Georgian: აღდგომა (aghdgoma)
April 16, 17th
(days off: April 16th, 17th)
Orthodox Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ in accordance with the Julian Calendar. This holiday is traditionally celebrated with close family and after the completion of a 40 day fast starting on Clean Monday, and ending on Lazarus Saturday. In 2023, Clean Monday is February 27th and Lazarus Saturday is April 15th.
Preparations for Easter begin two weeks in advance when Georgians will set wheat seeds in moistened cotton or cloth. By Easter, the seeds should sprout into wheat grass. This is done in remembrance of the resurrection. (It is also similar to a Nowruz tradition that takes place at about the same time of year).
The Friday prior to Easter is Red Friday. On this day, eggs are dyed by boiling them with onion peels and ground madder root (a plant that has long been grown as a dye). This taints the eggshells a gleaming blood red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. Special eggy Easter breads, called paskha, which usually contain raisins and/or other dried fruit or nuts and often frosted are baked or purchased on or before this day.
On the Saturday before Easter, the eggs are placed in the wheat grass. This brings together the symbols of spilled blood and new life into a symbol of resurrection. Together with the paskha, they are taken to be blessed by a priest with holy water at a special church ceremony. .
On Easter Sunday, part of the eggs are eaten for breakfast, together with the paskha. Family members will crack their eggs against each other around the table, and whoever ends up with the least amount of cracked eggs is crowned victor.
Easter dinner is eaten with family and traditionally includes chakapuli, a traditional stew made with sheep meat and plums. The lamb symbolizes Christ. For dessert, paska is served.
The Monday following Easter is Good Monday and is also a day off for Georgians. On this day, homage is paid to the deceased, so that no family member, living or dead, is alone on this joyous holiday. Red eggs and other foods are taken to graveyards where their family members will picnic and reminisce about their passed loved ones. Food and drink is left on the headstones.
In Georgian: Გამარჯვების დღე (Გamarjvebis dghe)
(days off: Jan 9)
Victory Day is a public holiday in Georgia that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II. It is celebrated on May 9th each year with parades and military displays. The parades are often attended by high-ranking government officials, including the President of Georgia, as well as military leaders and veterans.
In addition to parades, Victory Day is often marked with ceremonies and memorials to honor the fallen soldiers of World War II. These ceremonies often include the laying of wreaths at war memorials and the reading of speeches by government officials and military leaders.
Victory Day is also an opportunity for the public to come together and show their patriotism and support for their country. Many people in Georgia fly the national flag on this day, and there are often patriotic songs and performances at public events.
In the evening, there are often fireworks displays to mark the end of the day’s celebrations. These displays are typically held in public parks and squares, and are attended by large crowds of people.
Saint Andrew’s Day
In Georgian: წმინდა ანდრიას დღე (ts’minda andrias dghe)
(days off: May 12)
The Apostle Andrew is considered to be the first preacher of Christianity in Georgia, and thus the founder of the Georgian Orthodox Church. He is said to have been lead to southwest Georgia by the spirit of the Virgin Mary. The Julian Calendar marks the arrival of the Apostle Andrew in Georgia on the 12th day of May. Although it happened sometime in the first century, the exact year is almost never mentioned.
In 2019, the holiday was also declared the country’s consecration to the Virgin Mary. May 12th is an important religious holiday in Georgia, dedicated to prayer.
Georgian Independence Day
In Georgian: საქართველოს დამოუკიდებლობის დღე
(sakartvelos damouk’ideblobis dghe)
(days off: May 26)
Celebrated on May 26, Georgian Independence Day, sometimes called the Day of the First Republic, commemorates the passing of the 1918 Act of Independence which established the nation as independent from the Russian Empire. The Soviet invasion of 1921 cut the era of independence short, but Day of the First Republic expresses the spirit of freedom Georgia has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (which was declared on April 9, 1991).
The day is full of festivities and demonstrations of patriotism, especially in the capital city of Tbilisi. National landmarks are illuminated in red and white, the colors of the Georgian flag. Choirs perform the national anthem, “Tavisupleba,” the title of which means “liberty.” Military parades are held in major cities, and new servicemen swear loyalty to the nation. The streets come alive with dancing and singing, and children can be seen playing with police motorcycles and climbing atop military tanks used in the parade. In Liberty Square, the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Georgian Parliament address the public to laud national achievements and outline future policy objectives. The crowning moment of the celebration is when Su-25 fighter jets fly over the nation releasing red and white exhaust.
In Georgian: მარიამობა (mariamoba)
(days off: August 28)
The Dormition of the Mother of God is celebrated throughout the Orthodox Christian World in memory of the “falling asleep,” or painless death, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and her assumption into heaven. In Georgia, where over eighty percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, the Dormition of the Mother of God is recognized as a public holiday, popularly known as “Mariamoba,” or “Mary’s Feast Day.”
On August 28, churches across the country hold special services, and as the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II gives a special liturgy. Georgian Christians end their two-week Dormition Fast from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy and celebrate with family and friends. Thousands attend church, light candles, and pray. Many parishioners travel to Gergeti Trinity Church, which acted as the national treasury in times of war and hardship.
In Georgian: სვეტიცხოვლობა (svetitskhovloba)
(days off: October 14)
Day of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, also called Svetitskhovloba and Mtskhetoba, is a public holiday on October 14 celebrating the eponymous cathedral in the historic town of Mtskheta. Located about twelve miles outside the capital city of Tbilisi, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the second-largest church in Georgia and is said to house the mantle of Christ.
Legend says that after a follower of Christ brought the mantle to Georgia, his sister became so overcome with emotion that she died upon touching the fabric. She was buried along with the mantle. It also said that Saint Nino performed a miracle upon a cedar tree that sprouted from the burial site, hence why the cathedral is called Svetitskhoveli, which means “The Living Pillar Cathedral” in Georgian. The cathedral was first constructed in the fourth century, rebuilt in the fifth century, and renovated in the 11th century by the architect Arsukidze.
The cathedral has served as the resting place of Georgian monarchs for centuries and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Today, the Georgian Orthodox commemorate Svetitskhovloba by traveling to Mtskheta for worship, feasting, and public walks. As the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II performs a special liturgy at the cathedral. The city is filled with live music and traditional dancing, and artisan crafts line the streets.
In Georgian: გიორგობა (giorgoba)
(days off: November 23)
Giorgoba commemorates the martyrdom of Saint George, the patron saint of knights, warriors, and the military and the protector of Georgia. On order of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, he was tortured and executed for converting to Christianity in 303 CE. He is often depicted battling a dragon, and his image appears upon the Georgian coat-of-arms.
Saint George maintained a close relationship with Saint Nino of Cappadocia, an early Christian whose missionary work inspired the conversion of Queen Nana and King Mirian III of Georgia. After his death, Saint Nino established a tradition of veneration for George.
Saint George has since become an icon in Georgian cultural, religious, and military history. Over three hundred churches in Georgia bear his name, and he is said to have often appeared to Georgian troops before battle over the centuries. Today, Georgian Orthodox Christians celebrate an otherwise somber occasion with feasting, live music, and traditional dancing.
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