Georgian Holidays: Christmas in January
In Georgia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. This is because the Georgian Orthodox Church, like the Orthodox Churches in Russia, Serbia, and other countries, uses the old ‘Julian’ calendar for their festivals.
On Christmas Day, many people participate in a parade called ‘Alilo’ on the streets. They dress up in unique clothes and costumes to celebrate Christmas. Some people carry Georgian flags, while others dress up as characters from the Christmas story. Children love taking part in the Alilo as they receive sweets!
Carols are sung during the Alilo, and they vary across the country. Many of the songs and carols sung include the words: “otsdakhutsa dekembersa qriste ishva betlemsao,” which means “on December 25th, Christ was born in Bethlehem.”
The traditional Georgian Christmas Tree is called a ‘Chichilaki.’ It is made of dried wood, such as hazelnut or walnut branches, which are shaved into long curly strips to form a small tree. Some people say they look like the long, white, curly beard of St Basil the Great! They are decorated with small fruits and sweets. They are traditionally burnt on the day before the Georgian Orthodox Epiphany (January 19th). This is meant to mark the end of the year’s troubles. ‘Western’ Christmas Trees (nadzvis khe) are also popular.
People in Georgia receive their presents on New Year’s Eve (December 31st). Gifts are traditionally brought to children by “Tovlis Papa” (or tovlis babua in western Georgian dialects), which means “Grandfather Snow”. He usually wears all-white clothing, including a hat and a cape/cloak called a “nabadi.” The cloak is heavy and very warm as it is made of white sheep’s wool. Shepherds wear them in darker colours, but Tovlis Papa has to wear a white one!
On New Year’s Eve, he comes down from the mountains of the Caucasus and walks around Georgia to deliver treats and sweets to all the children in Georgia. Children leave out “Churchkhela,” a delicious treat made of walnuts and grape juice, which is shaped like a sausage, for Tovlis Papa. Santa is also often called “Tovlis Papa,” but the actual “Tovlis Papa” does not mind, as he is as chill as the mountains he lives in!
Georgian Christmas March
Alilo is a traditional Christmas march that holds a special place in the hearts of people worldwide. The procession usually occurs in the morning after an exceptional Christmas service in churches. Thousands of people participate in the march, singing Christmas carols that vary from country to country. During the march, children are dressed as angels and adults as shepherds, resembling the scene where the wise men visit the baby Jesus in the stable.
The participants carry crosses and icons through the streets, collecting food, sweets, and other items later distributed to people in need and orphanages. Everyone is welcome to join the march or donate food, produce, or other items, making it a beautiful event for children who often receive many sweets from locals.
Georgian Christmas Trees
Georgian Christmas celebration features Christmas trees that are different from the ones we are used to seeing in Western Europe. The Chichilaki is a traditional Georgian Christmas tree made from dried hazelnut branches that are shaved into a small coniferous tree. According to Georgian beliefs, the shaven tree resembles the famous beard of St. Basil the Great. During the Christmas season, St. Basil is believed to visit people, similar to the traditions of Santa Claus.
Georgian Christmas celebrations incorporate familiar Christmas concepts, such as Santa Claus, who is known as Tovlis Papa or Father Frost. Father Frost appears in traditional Georgian clothing and wears a fur coat called nabadi. Unlike the Western version of Santa Claus, Father Frost doesn't have reindeer or a sleigh. However, on Christmas Eve, he visits homes to leave gifts for children.
Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, food, family, and friends in Georgia. The day is marked by church services, carols, and alilo processions, which bring the whole country together. The unique and beautiful Georgian Christmas celebrations are worth experiencing, especially if you want to continue celebrating after December 26.
If you're eager to explore Georgia, check out our Georgia trip, where you can immerse yourself in the culture and get to know the country and its people authentically and sustainably. Also, subscribe to the TripLegend Newsletter to be among the first to experience our extraordinary winter journey through the Caucasus region.