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When my host family asked if I wanted to go to Gorivari for St. George's Day, I was sure it was a typo. We "talk" a lot with Google Translate, and they said they wanted to leave at 6:30am and get back by 8am. I've never seen a family member awake before 8am, and most of Gori is still asleep at 9am when I start class. So the idea of leaving at 6:30 was odd, but they meant it!
Folks in America need to realize that the orthodox churches run on the Gregorian calendar, not the Julian calendar. So in Georgia, St. George's day is celebrated today, which is a different day that you'd celebrate it in the Roman Catholic church.
I've seen videos of pilgrimages where a winding stream of humanity leads to a mountain top, but I had never been a part of one until now. The closest analogy (and its a pretty poor one) I had to this was having to leave at least a half hour early for mass on Easter or Christmas to ensure we got seats. As with most other things, it turns out if you are early, you have an easier time.
Police were stationed at intervals to moderate traffic, and we were fortunate enough to be able to park decently high on the mountain (did I mention we crammed seven people and a chicken into one car?). We had to walk the rest of the way, but everyone had to walk at least part of the way.
Even at the early hour, the pilgrims' path was populated with some vendor's and one performer, but the real sight was the mass of people and the animals they brought. People carried chickens (usually roosters) and pulled sheep along with them. At the time, I had no real idea why.
Arriving at the church, we began to circle the building. Pilgrims circumnavigate the chapel three times, often kissing its walls as they go. If you have animals, they accompany you. I was told the three trips represent the holy trinity: the father, the son, and the holy ghost.
Then you can buy thin beeswax candles in groups of three. Armed with these, you enter the chapel, pay your respects to the shrine (a large metal cross), and light each of your candles as you say a prayer. There's trays of sand at the edges of the chapel, and you plant your candles in these as an offering. Again, the number three is for the holy trinity. Your animals stay outside.
This is not an entirely solemn affair. Friends eagerly greet one another, and I was introduced to Father Luka, a jovial priest if ever there was one.
The animals? So, it turns out they are part of an ancient tradition predating the church. The animals are offered as sacrifice. Typically, the families take them home, slaughter them, and eat them. The practice is not universally approved of though. For instance, some people donate the animals to the church as a form a sacrifice instead.
I should also mention that when we were driving home, the traffic to get near the church was backed up several hundred meters and it was only just barely 7:30am in a land where most people aren't active until 9. It must have been pretty crazy later in the day.