In Georgia, Europe and Asia have merged into a culture that is strangely not European nor Asian, but distinctly its own: Georgian. The mix of influences from the two continents has resulted in unique local traditions, cuisine, customs, and more that are unlike what you’ll find anywhere else — including how the locals ring in the new year.
If you want to have an authentic local experience in Tbilisi in December, touristy Rustaveli Avenue and Liberty Square are not the right places for that. Instead, visit Aghmashenebeli Avenue and the bazaar. Georgian bazaars are joyful and full of colours, and in the days leading up to December 31st, the bazaars are the most-visited places in the city as locals stock up on the goods they’ll need for New Year’s celebrations. While there are plenty of dishes, the highlight for locals is gozinaki, a sweet, homemade candy made from honey and walnuts — a New Year’s without this treat is simply unimaginable in Georgia. (Plus, it’ll keep the dentists in business for the new year!)
Another tradition is the tree: in Georgia, it isn’t just a Christmas tree that gets put up at the holiday, but a New Year tree, called a chichilaki. Traditional New Year trees are made from shaved walnut or hazelnut tree branches, and then decorated with chocolates and fruit. These fluffy, lovely, handmade trees are believed to bring happiness and peace to your home. The sizes vary from several centimetres to a few metres, but don’t worry, the size of your tree doesn’t affect the amount of happiness or peace you’ll experience.
Generally, a chichilaki will stand in the living room, right next to the dinner table, so it can join you for a glass of heavenly Georgian wine at dinner. Kidding, trees don’t drink — but you do, right? If so, Tbilisi is the right place for you. Here, good wine is always a good idea, and we like to think that maybe wine is the answer to why Georgians are so artistic; the streets of Tbilisi are filed with local artists selling crafts. Head to Agmashenebeli Avenue, where you’re likely to find some amazing handcrafted wooden souvenirs. (You might also find farmers selling huge pumpkins from their fields, right there in the city centre.)
Between your New Year’s Eve supply shopping at the bazaar and your souvenir shopping on the streets, be sure to grab a local lunch to fuel you up. The streets of Tbilisi are full of nice cafés that offer khachapuri (cheese-filled bread), spinach pie, and other pastries, as well as plenty of street food.
Late in the day on December 31, when you’ve had enough good wine, nice art, and delicious food for the daylight hours, head back to your hotel to change and rush out to a New Year’s Eve party — where I’m sure you’ll find all those things (wine, art, and food!) in abundance!