Georgia: Celebrating the Holidays without “Wooden” Christmas Trees
Georgians nostalgic for the sweet, Christmas smell of a fir tree might feel a lot like Charlie Brown this holiday. While “big, shiny aluminum” trees abound, homegrown Georgian fir trees are a rarity in Tbilisi this year.
The lack of real fir trees is somewhat ironic for Georgia, given the country’s reputation as a vital source of cones for fir tree nurseries in Denmark. But new regulations, and higher fines, for illegally cutting fir trees could be having a Grinch-like effect on the local market.
While the city appears flooded with artificial trees, there are currently less than a handful of fir tree sellers braving the December cold to sell the genuine article.
Two of Tbilisi’s four official Christmas tree lots are empty; a third boasts one lone seller with two scraggly trees cut from his front yard in western Georgia.
A new, stricter policy to weed out illegal logging could be to blame for the lackluster selection of local Christmas trees. Higher fines, more forest monitoring and a document registering the origin of the tree are all designed to tighten control over illegal logging, noted Nino Endukidze, a deputy minister at the Georgian Ministry of Energy and National Resources.
The new fines start at 500 lari (approximately $300) for the first offense if the fir tree has been cut down for personal use, and double to 1,000 lari ($600) if the tree has been illegally cut down by a registered business, she said. But Endukidze denied that the restrictions are to blame for the apparent lack of fir trees this season.
“The fines are higher, but the restrictions have been in force for several years,” she said, noting that the ministry simply put the regulations in a new “framework” when forests were added to its portfolio earlier this year.
Giorgi Korkashvili, the head of the department of ecology at City Hall, agreed that there appear to be fewer vendors for real trees in the city’s designated lots. But he attributes the change to a better selection of artificial trees in stores and indoor malls, which are “more comfortable” for shoppers.
Nana Marshania, a sidewalk vendor of live fir trees for replanting, said it is too early to tell if there will be a shortage of trees on the market this year. (Though Christmas preparations begin as early as November, Christmas trees are largely bought for the New Year’s holiday; Georgian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7.) But she said few people request cut trees and she does not sell them.
“They take so much work and time to grow it is a shame to cut them down [just for the holiday],” she said.
Real fir trees are available at local nurseries and garden centers, but at over three times the price of the local variety. Imported Turkish fir trees and Georgian breeds like Sochi and Makagoni, cultivated in Europe from exported seeds and then imported for the season, sell for 100-300 lari ($60-$180) – a hefty price tag in a country with an average monthly salary of just under 600 laris (about $361).
One Christmas tree ornament vendor at Tbilisi’s Didube market shrugged off requests for real fir trees, noting that “jail” awaited anyone who dares to cut one down.
“You won’t find one in Tbilisi this year,” he said. “Maybe you could bring one to the city, but they would arrest you when you tried to sell it.”
But, for those, like Charlie Brown, who are desperate for a tree that is not “bright, shiny aluminum,” there is always the chichilaki – a traditional Georgian tree carved from hazelnut wood. That, noted one vendor, is at least “half” a real tree.