Monday, April 16, 2007

Georgians Know How to Feast

No description of Georgian culture would be complete without due reference to the supra, a banquet of lavish portions, but also an art form. These events are put on for weddings, birthdays, Easter, Christmas, housewarmings and other important occasions.

The supra is usually held at a single long table, or a string of tables running end to end. Foods of all kinds and generous quantities of Georgian wine are kept in supply at all times.

The festivities are led by a toastmaster called the tamada. His task is to not only to propose the toasts but also to blend the enthusiasm and camaraderie of banqueting with moments of reflection and tranquility. He must have the skills of an orator, a poet, a philosopher, a social commentator and a singer all rolled into one.

The toasts are given in a specific order: the first is to peace, the second to parents, then to siblings, to the deceased (especially friends and relatives of those present), to life (especially the lives of the children of those recently departed), and then to love and friendship. Only after this litany of traditional toasts has been given is the tamada free to add his own toasts, as befit the occasion. When the tamada is finished with toasts on the topics of his choice, then guests, with his permission, may offer their own. (Starting on a new topic without the tamada’s permission is a major social gaffe.) As the night progresses, successive speakers attempt to one-up each other, with a sort of oratory contest developing.

Particular customs accompany some of the toasts. During the toast to the dead, for example, the tamada usually pours some wine on bread and crosses himself, praying that God be merciful to the souls of the departed.

Because a supra is not only a social event, but also a spiritual one, toasts are usually accompanied by a direct appeal to the divine: God, help us in all our deeds! Toasts at a supra are never negative and wine is only drunk when toasts are given, so it is the tamada’s task to ensure that the toasts come with proper spacing and regularity. When drinking a toast all of the men stand and drink their wine in silence.

After each toast is given, a song is sung by everyone present, a song chosen by the tamada, whose selection must artfully reinforce the message of each toast. Georgian drinking songs are usually melodious, polyphonic and complicated, though well-known to the Georgian people.

If there is space, folk dancing will also be included at a supra.

The night ends with the tamada proposing a toast to the patron saints of the Georgian people and one of the men then toasts the tamada himself.

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