The godzilla-sized tree of lights is up on Freedom Square and a gazillion more streamers of lights twinkle for eight kilometers down Tbilisi’s main drag, a clear, impressive indication the holiday season is upon us once again. The best thing about celebrating Christmas here is that tradition does not require us to buy a bunch of stuff for people that they don’t need. In Georgia, the real meaning of Christmas is indulgence in the gastronomic sense.
Birthdays notwithstanding, the first feast of the season is on December 17, Saint Barbara’s Day. Being an Orthodox Christian country, the December 25 is only celebrated by expats and those Georgians looking for an excuse to feast. Georgia’s Jesus was born on January 7, a holiday commemorated humbly with a trip to church and dinner at home.
New Year’s Eve, a holiday introduced to the USSR by Joseph Stalin in 1935, is the climax of the season, which is rung in at home with family and loved ones. After you have eaten to maximum capacity and drained your wine glass of the last toast, you brush the crumbs off your lap and go out to party with friends until sunrise. The next two weeks are spent in a muddled stupor, wandering like a lobotomized imbecile from dinner table to dinner table until the fireworks of “Old” New Year on January 16 announce it’s time to wrap this madness up.
In addition to your pancreas and liver, the holiday season is also bad news for suckling pigs. The tradition of eating them goes back to the old days when people celebrated St. Basil’s Day on January 1. St. Basil supposedly raised swine, so in the Orthodox world people eat piglets as a way of honoring him. In Georgia, people will line up in the freezing December weather to take the suckling pigs they bought at the bazaar to the local baker, who will roast them in his tandoori-like tone oven.
Another festive staple is satsivi, a thick walnut and garlic sauce served cold over turkey, which can be rather tough, as Georgian turkeys are quite free-range and are not injected with hormones or fed industrial fodder. Many people substitute chicken or fish. Whatever the meat, satsivi is the most dangerous edible on your holiday table. Once, our friend Erekle was rushed to the hospital after experiencing severe stomach cramps – satsivi O.D. He just couldn’t say no one too many times and was obliged to stay away from walnuts for a few months, which in Georgia is damn near impossible, as nearly everything is made with nuts.
There are no fruitcakes in Georgia, thankfully, but sweets, nuts, fresh mandarines, dried persimmons and other fruits have a significant role in the celebrations. Neighbors wish each other a happy new year with candies or slices of churchkhelas. Some families indulge in a hearty porridge called korketi, made of buckwheat, walnuts, dried fruit and brandy, but the pièce de resistance is the gozinaki, an addictive brittle made of chopped walnuts in caramelized honey. A seemingly simple recipe, yet each family’s gozinaki is deliciously individual, and no table is set without it.
Everybody in Tbilisi will be hoisting toasts with young village wine that has been waiting especially for the holidays to be cracked open. Our Kakhetian friend Soso should be here any day now to take orders for wine, chacha and churchkhelas. It wouldn’t be Christmas for us without his kvevri saperavi, which is first-rate and decanted from five-liter plastic bottles.
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Published on December 20, 2016