Shaved from poles of hazelnut wood 20 centimeters (about 8 inches) to 3 meters (about 10 feet) tall, chichilakis with their wispy, whimsical boughs symbolize both the bounties of life to come and the sorrows of life past.
Each year, two weeks before January 1, Kvicha Nachkebia, a 39-year-old villager from the western Georgian region of Samegrelo, travels across country to Tbilisi's central market to work 12-hour days selling chichilakis.
Nachkebia not only sells chichilakis; he makes or, rather, shaves them himself. Freshly cut poles of wood from hazelnut trees are first dried for a couple of days in the sun or in front of a stove. Then, using a sharp knife, Nachkebia gets to work shaving the pole, leaving each shaving attached to the main stem. A "skirt" of shavings eventually surrounds the pole, creating the illusion of a tree.
In Samegrelo and Guria, where the chichilaki custom thrives, the decorations are believed to symbolize the tree of life, which, as ancient Georgians believed, connects the earth and the sky. The small fruits or berries now used to adorn a chichilaki's top originally symbolized fertility and offerings to heaven; pomegranates, apples and madder were among the traditional offerings.
Chichilakis are often burnt the day before Georgian Orthodox Epiphany (January 19) to symbolize the passing of the old year's troubles. In Samegrelo, some families bring home a chichilaki for each recently deceased family member.
In Tbilisi, chichilakis became more common with the arrival of Internally Displaced Persons from breakaway Abkhazia and migrants from western Georgia after the 1992-1993 war over Abkhazia. Once seen as a hillbilly holiday decoration, the trees have become an increasingly popular complement to city residents' conventional Christmas trees.
The time involved in creating a chichilaki can be similarly intense, though. Shaving a chichilaki can take anywhere from half an hour to two days, depending on the tree's height. The money earned from their sale is slim, ranging from one lari (about 60 cents) for the smallest trees to 20 lari (about $12) for a human-sized one.
Nachkebia says he was only 11 years old when he made his first chichilaki, but until he married, seven years ago, he never crafted the trees for money. "I got married, and I needed to start bringing money into the family," he recounts.
It is mostly a man's craft. Nachkebia's wife, Nato, is one of the few women in his native village of Martvili who makes chichilakis. Shaving requires great strength, but Nachkebia claims his wife has even greater patience - another essential quality for a chichilaki maker. "Women, if they can, produce better chichilakis than men," he says. "It's just strength they usually lack."
Already Nachkebia is preparing his 13-year-old son, Temuri, to follow in his trade. Temuri has produced a couple of hundred chichilakis, but Nachkebia says his son needs to shave still more. Practice, after all, makes perfect.
Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.