Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

The attached article engagingly describes Georgia’s many folk customs, some religious, some secular, surrounding the New Year (“Akhal Tseli”) and Christmas (“Shoba”) celebrations. As the Church in Georgia still adheres to the Julian calender for liturgical purposes (like the Churches of Moscow and Serbia), we have the odd situation that Christmas follows the New Year by a week. The Patriarch customarily issues an oekonomia ( dispensation) for the Orthodox faithful to relax their fasting somewhat for the New Year celebration and enjoy a drink or two in moderation.

If you are celebrating your holidays at a Georgian friend’s house, the first thing that might strike you as strange is the nut wood twig with long fluffy shavings decorating the most dominant spot in the house, perhaps alongside the more familiar fir. The twig is called a chichilaki. And while it does not permeate the entire room with the nice fresh pine aroma that fir does, it certainly serves as an interesting decorative feature and, for the Georgians, serves as a symbol of life and hope. Achichilaki is usually decorated with an assortment of fruits, berries, and flowers as offerings to heaven for a bountiful harvest. Chichilakis are not a year-round Christmas symbol, however, as people ceremoniously burn them on the day before the Georgian Orthodox Epiphany on January 19, believing that the smoke takes away all the misfortunes of the year…….

Once the New Year has been welcomed, celebrated and honoured, there follows another holiday, Christmas, also occupying a special place in the hearts and souls of Georgians. The Georgian Christmas is traditionally celebrated from the evening of January 6th with Orthodox Christian devotees attending a festive public service that lasts all night. After the service is over, Georgians continue the celebration at home, lighting candles and sitting at the holiday table once more, this time with even more delicacies, since for many Georgians the birth of Christ symbolizes the end of the fasting period. The next morning, the 7th, is marked by a special Alilo procession, during which clergymen walk along the streets carrying icons, crosses, and flags, followed by Christians of all ages. Children dressed in white usually lead the procession, symbolizing angels on foot. As the ceremony proceeds, the participants collect donations and gifts to be given to orphanages and people in need. In the end, believers unite at Sameba (the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity) to accept the congratulations of the Patriarch of All Georgia on Christmas.

via The Georgian Holidays: What You Need to Know : Ekaterine Tchelidze : Georgia Today on the Web.

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Today is Saint Philip’s Day, one of the Twelve Apostles. His feast day marks the end of the regular post-Pentecostal period, and is followed by the Nativity Fast (also known as the Saint Philip’s Fast), which lasts for forty days until the morning of Shobas (Christmas) on January 7.

The purpose of fasting has been discussed here before. As previously mentioned, the Nativity Fast is less rigourous than the Fast of Great Lent. Meat, poultry, dairy prodcts and eggs are excluded from the diet for the entire fast. Wine and oil are permitted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and fish, wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. The simplification of diet and winding back of social engagements creates a sense of anticipation of the great celebration to come, and helps to reduce stress.

For those in Tbilisi struggling to find tasty vegetarian ingredients for the next 40 days, I can strongly recommend the Turkish supermarket “Tursa” in Didube Plaza, Tsereteli Street in Didube District. They have an excellent choice of grains, beans and other pulses, and middle eastern spices.

“The Holy Apostle Philip, was a native of the city of Bethsaida (or Bethesda, in Galilee). He had a profound depth of knowledge of the Holy Scripture, and rightly discerning the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies, he awaited the coming of the Messiah. Through the summoning of the Saviour (Jn. 1: 43), Philip followed Him. The Apostle Philip is spoken about several times in the Holy Gospel: he brought to Christ the Apostle Nathanael (i.e. Bartholomew, Comm. 22 April, 11 and 30 June, 25 August; Vide Jn. 1: 46); the Lord asks him how much money would be needful to buy bread for five thousand men (Jn. 6: 5-7); he brought certain of the Hellenised Jews wanting to see Jesus (Jn. 12: 21-22); and finally, at the time of the Last Supper he asked Christ about God the Father (Jn. 14: 8).

After the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostle Philip preached the Word of God in Galilee, accompanying his preaching with miracles. Thus, he restored to life a dead infant, in the arms of its mother. From Galilee he set off to Greece, and preached amongst the Jews that had settled there. Certain of them reported in Jerusalem about the preaching of the apostle, in response to which there arrived in Hellas (Greece) from Jerusalem, scribes with the Jewish high-priest at their head, for a persecution against the Apostle Philip. The Apostle Philip exposed the lie of the high-priest, who said that the disciples of Christ had stolen away and hidden the body of Christ, telling instead how the Pharisees had bribed the soldiers on watch, to deliberately spread this rumour. When the Jewish high-priest and his companions began to insult the Lord and lunged at the Apostle Philip, they suddenly were struck blind. By prayer the apostle restored everyone to sight, and in beholding this miracle, many believed in Christ. The Apostle Philip established a bishop for them, by the name of Narcissos (listed within the rank of the Seventy Disciples,  – Comm. 4 January).

From Hellas the Apostle Philip set out to Parthia, and then to the city of Azota, where he healed an eye affliction of the daughter of a local resident named Nikoclides, who had received him into his home, and then baptised with all his whole family.

From Azota the Apostle Philip set out to Syrian Hieropolis where, stirred up by the Pharisees, the Jews burned the house of Heros, who had taken in the Apostle Philip, and they wanted to kill the apostle. But in witnessing miracles wrought by the apostle –the healing of the hand of the city official Aristarchos, withered in attempting to strike the apostle, and also a dead lad restored to life – they repented and many accepted holy Baptism. Having made Heros bishop at Hieropolis, the Apostle Philip went on to Syria, Asia Minor, Lydia, Emessa, and everywhere preaching the Gospel and undergoing sufferings. Both he and his sister Mariamna accompanying him were pelted with stones, locked up in prison, and thrown out of villages.

Then the Apostle Philip arrived in Phrygia, in the city of Phrygian Hieropolis, where there were many pagan temples, among which was a pagan temple devoted to snake-worship, having within it an enormous serpent. The Apostle Philip by the power of prayer killed the serpent and healed many bitten by the snakes. Among those healed was the wife of the city governor Amphypatos. Having learned that his wife had accepted Christianity, the governor Amphypatos gave orders to arrest Saint Philip, his sister, and the Apostle Bartholomew travelling with them. At the urging of the pagan priests of the temple of the serpent, Amphypatos gave orders to crucify the holy Apostles Philip and Bartholomew. At this time there began an earthquake, and it knocked down to the ground all those present at the judgement-place. Hanging upon the cross at the pagan temple of the serpent, the Apostle Philip prayed for the salvation of those that had crucified him, to save them from the ravages of the earthquake. Seeing this happen, the people believed in Christ and began to demand that the apostles be taken down from the crosses. The Apostle Bartholomew, in being taken down from the cross was still alive, and he baptised all those believing and established a bishop for them.

But the Apostle Philip, through whose prayers everyone remained alive, except for Amphypatos and the pagan priests, – died on the cross.

Mariamna his sister buried his body, and together with the Apostle Bartholomew she set out preaching to Armenia, where the Apostle Bartholomew was crucified (Comm. 11 June); Mariamna herself then preached until her own death at Likaoneia (Comm. 17 February).”

Father S. Janos, Saint Hermann’s Press 1991

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The Georgian version of a Christmas carol is known as an “Alilo”. This version, performed by Ansambli Basiani, originates in West Georgia’s mountainous Racha region.

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As powerful now as when this eloquent Byzantine bishop first uttered this homily in the 4th Century, this distils the Christmas spirit into its purest essence. A Blessed Christmas to you all, გილოცავთ შობა!!


I behold a new and wondrous mystery! My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing!

The Archangels blend their voices in harmony!

The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise!

The Seraphim exalt His glory!

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassibility, remaining unchanged…

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Yet He has not forsaken His angels, nor left them deprived of His care, nor because of His Incarnation has he departed from the Godhead.

And behold kings have come, that they might adore the heavenly King of glory;

soldiers, that they might serve the Leader of the Hosts of Heaven;

women, that they might adore Him Who was born of a woman so that He might change the pains of child-birth into joy;

virgins, to the Son of the Virgin, beholding with joy, that He Who is the Giver of milk, Who has decreed that the fountains of the breast pour forth in ready streams, receives from a Virgin Mother the food of infancy;

infants, that they may adore Him Who became a little child, so that out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings, He might perfect praise;

children, to the Child Who raised up martyrs through the rage of Herod;

men, to Him Who became man, that He might heal the miseries of His servants;

shepherds, to the Good Shepherd Who has laid down His life for His sheep;

priests, to Him Who has become a High Priest according to the order of Melchisedech;

servants, to Him Who took upon Himself the form of a servant that He might bless our servitude with the reward of freedom;

fisherman, to Him Who from amongst fishermen chose catchers of men;

publicans, to Him Who from amongst them named a chosen Evangelist;

sinful women, to Him Who exposed His feet to the tears of the repentant; and that I may embrace them all together, all sinners have come, that they may look upon the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.

Since therefore all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice. I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival. But I take my part, not plucking the harp, not shaking the Thyrsian staff, not with the music of the pipes, nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ. For this is all my hope, this my life, this my salvation, this my pipe, my harp. And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels, sing: Glory to God in the Highest; and with the shepherds, and on earth peace to men of good will.

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Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast, which runs for forty days until the great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord (Chistmas) on January 7. It is also known by the Slavs as Saint Philip’s Fast, as it commences on Saint Philip’s Day, today.

The Nativity Fast is not as rigourous as the Lenten Fast; there are days of the week when wine and oil may be consumed, and some days when fish may be eaten. The purpose of the Fast is to facilitate prayer, to simplify our lives while preparing for Christ’s arrival, and to create a strong sense of anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.

The Apostle Philip was one of the Twelve Apostles. He was martyred in present-day Turkey, and his tomb was discovered in Heirapolis in Denizli province in 2011.

According to  the Prologue of Ohrid, by Saint Nikolai Velimirovic;

“Philip was born in Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee, as were Peter and Andrew. Instructed in Holy Scripture from his youth, Philip immediately responded to the call of the Lord Jesus and followed Him (John 1:43). After the descent of the Holy Spirit, Philip zealously preached the Gospel throughout many regions in Asia and Greece.

In Greece, the Jews wanted to kill him, but the Lord saved him by His mighty miracles. Thus, a Jewish high priest that rushed at Philip to beat him was suddenly blinded and turned completely black. Then there was a great earthquake, and the earth opened up and swallowed Philip’s wicked persecutor. Many other miracles were manifested, especially the healing of the sick, by which many pagans believed in Christ.

In the Phrygian town of Hierapolis, St. Philip found himself in common evangelical work with his sister Mariamna, St. John the Theologian, and the Apostle Bartholomew. In this town there was a dangerous snake that the pagans diligently fed and worshiped as a god. God’s apostle killed the snake through prayer as though with a spear, but he also incurred the wrath of the unenlightened people. The wicked pagans seized Philip and crucified him upside-down on a tree, and then crucified Bartholomew as well. At that, the earth opened up and swallowed the judge and many other pagans with him. In great fear, the people rushed to rescue the crucified apostles, but only Bartholomew was still alive; Philip had already breathed his last. Bartholomew ordained Stachys as bishop for those whom he and Philip had baptized. Stachys had been blind for forty years, and Bartholomew and Philip had healed and baptized him. The relics of St. Philip were later translated to Rome. This wonderful apostle suffered in the year 86 in the time of Emperor Dometian.”


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Given that we are still within the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, I thought it would be nice to sample some more of Georgia’s regional vocal traditions for the Nativity Season.

Northwestern Georgia’s Svaneti region is a rugged alpine environment, with the distinction of incorporating the highest permanent settlement in Europe. The people are likewise rugged, making their livings from herding sheep and cattle, timbercutting, beekeeping and furniture making in remote mountain villages. Svaneti has the distinction of having safeguarded Georgia’s religious heritage during the Mongol invasions, by hiding and protecting icons and other treasures of the Church from the heathen invaders.

Svani chant has a mournful tone and is an important part of Georgia’s liturgical and musical tradition. A Svaneti Alilo is presented hereThe neighbouring subtropical coastal region of Samegrelo (Mingrelia in Russian) also has its own strong Christmas musical traditions. A Megruli Alilo can be viewed belowFor those interested in the sights of the 2011 Alilo Parade in Tbilisi, here is some footage.



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BBC News - In pictures: Orthodox Christmas celebrations

BBC presents a photographic journey throughout the Orthodox World, capturing images of Christmas celebrations. The link is provided below.

BBC News – In pictures: Orthodox Christmas celebrations.

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Anyone visiting an Orthodox temple tonight will notice the Icon of the Nativity displayed prominently. The symbolism of this icon is very well explained here

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

Modern Icon of the Nativity

The most wise Lord comes to be born,
Receiving hospitality from His own creatures.
Let us also receive Him,
That this divine Child in the cave may make us His guests
In the paradise of delights!

The Birth of Christ has always been celebrated and hymned by Christians in some way or other, as it is central to the Faith. The Word of God in past times may have appeared as an angel of the Lord, or the divine fire of the burning bush, but now, from this time onwards, He has become one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes to us as a tiny, speechless, infant. This is what is shown in the Nativity Icon, and around this central historical event other stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ are depicted.

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As we approach Christmas Eve in Georgia, it is interesting to ponder not only Georgia’s rich musical tradition surrounding the Nativity (Shoba in Georgian), but that of our neighbours as well.

Georgia’s religious music was initially influenced by the Byzantine music of the Eastern Roman Empire, sung in Greek, which merged with indigenous polyphonic traditions. As the Georgian Church became officially recognised as an exarchy of the Church of Antioch, Greek and Levantine influence continued until the Church became autocephalous in the 5th century. In the Middle Ages, the Georgian Church had a substantial presence in other countries, including Cyprus, Greece (at the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos), Jerusalem, and what is now Azerbaijan and Turkey. The academies at Gelati, Khakuli and other eminent monasteries hosted theologians, artists and musicians from around the region, enriching their traditions and being exposed to other musical traditions in turn.

As is common in Orthodox churches, bishops were granted leave to accommodate local languages in liturgy and hymnology, and to “Christianise” indigenous pagan traditions that were not considered antithetical to the Church’s principals. The Russian colonial period added further variety to Georgian church music, with some Georgian hymns noticeably in the “oratorio” format that was favoured in 19th century Russia, rather than in chant format.

A scholarly exposition of similarities and differences between Eastern Orthodox chant of different countries is provided here by the Library of Eastern Orthodox Resources.

Neighbouring countries likewise have experienced synthesis of their musical traditions. In the Levant, Byzantine chant has been influenced by indigenous Phoenician traditions and, after the Arab conquest, Arabic has progressively become the liturgical language in that region. Here is a stunning Levantine hymn, chanted by Canadian Reader Nader Hajjar. The translation provided gives a wonderful insight into the poetic strength of Orthodox Christian hymnology.

“Christ is Born” /Christos Gennatai is a hymn sung throughout the Greek-speaking world. An English language version is furnished here

The Kontakion of the Nativity is beautifully chanted by the Choir of Vaalam Monastery, of Karelia in the Russian Federation, in Church Slavonic.


The very talented Divna Ljubojevic of Serbia sings the Kontakion of the Nativity to a Serbian tune.


Finally, a few Georgian Christmas carols; these are often sung in the “Alilo” parades in Georgian cities on Christmas Day.  “Alilo” is Georgian for “Alleluia”. Footage of last year’s “Alilo” parade is provided here

For those interested in learning the lyrics of Alilo hymns, Georgian Song Lyrics provides the lyrics to various regional versions.

Footage of Alilo carols sung in the temple on Christmas Eve

and more Nativity footage from a small church, with the choir singing the Alilo

This Alilo carol is sung by the Paris-based Georgian Harmony Choir directed by Nana Peradze

and another “Alilo”carol, called “December 25”, written by Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia

From Georgia’s mountainous Racha region, another Alilo

May I wish you and your families all a very Happy and Holy Christmas; Shobas Gilocav!

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