Traditions: Etseri, Svaneti


This is one of the seasons, Christmas, when one changes one’s behavior according to the time of year. As Tevye and his village so powerfully sang and demonstrated at the beginning of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ that word, tradition, can be a powerful force in motivating us to do or not do certain things.

We have just got past the shortest day and longest night of the year, Winter Solstice, December 22. Here, ringed by mountains, one is more sensitive to this than on plains: our sun rises now at 9:30 am, and sets at 4:15 pm, because of the topology, not because of being so far north. At least daylight extends outside these hours somewhat, though, and having put the 22nd behind us, we look forward only to longer days until June 22! Then it begins again. We, and our livestock if we have any, sleep longer; cows stop their milk, hens their eggs; the shop is open fewer hours too, as people simply come to it less in the dark.

Once the mandarins come up for sale in Zugdidi, we buy a lot for both the shop and ourselves. When I lived in Ushguli before getting married, President Saakashvili sent the village boxes of them as a seasonal gift. I urged my host family to keep a bag of the skins in the freezer until they were all gone, instead of feeding them to the pigs. Then, adding local moonshine, and waiting until Easter before filtering it and adding sugar syrup, I produced a passable version of Cointreau liqueur, which they relished. I now do this every winter.

At home I’ve learnt not only this, but also to julienne each skin as it becomes available before adding it to the alcohol. Then, once I’ve made my liqueur in spring, I make marmalade too, and can confess that there’s none finer to my taste. Most of the alcohol has burned off in the boiling, but that fine flavor remains. As always, I beg you, gentle reader, to treat any alcoholic product with the respect it deserves, and don’t let it ruin you! It’s doable, believe this writer who enjoys a sip but has not once been drunk in his life!

We make many things from fruit in the season, to store up in the long dark fruitless winter months and enjoy: compotes, liqueurs, wines (even from our raspberries), dried versions, jams with or without boiling, and more.

I set up the camera on a tripod and try to find out where the local fireworks will be coming from, to shoot a few rounds in the fantastic mountain winter setting which encircles us.

As westerners living in a country which celebrates certain dates according to a different calendar, it can be hard to know how, or indeed when, to commemorate them. December 25 isn’t even a holiday here: January 7 takes its place. But we don’t mind. Whether one is “religious” or not, there’s plenty of festivity of various kinds to indulge in, partly due to the hang-on from atheist Soviet years of trying to replace Christmas with New Year’s as the main winter holiday. Both my wife and I are far from actual family in Svaneti. But we make time for each other, as well as being sure to celebrate with our local friends and neighbors. It’s really a communal time, and we love this.

Christmas 2019 feels strange in Georgia due to the political climate, the rage and anguish currently visiting us. People here will have to figure out how to cope with, or protest and change, what has happened and cannot be undone.

They say that depression can be greater in this midwinter season, whether due to lack of light or to some people being isolated, or to financial pressure. I find that decommercializing the thing for myself, focusing on relationships and on giving in less expensive but no less appreciated ways, are good antidotes. I also love the beauty of winter, which feeling comes naturally to a photographer. And if one felt “cut off” as a foreigner here during the Christmas/New Year season, one should only remember how hospitable are the people of Georgia, and seek someone, even total strangers, to share it with in one way or another. Don’t go it alone!

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

By Tony Hanmer

26 December 2019 19:13