Murdered in an online video and framed for an armed robbery, Santa Claus had a tough holiday season in Georgia this year.
His troubles began with what seemed at first like just another one of those cuddly Christmas commercials.
As a jingle plays, a bespectacled Santa, fresh from the chimney, checks out the room, helps himself to candy and starts placing presents under a glittering Christmas tree. Suddenly, a menacing voice rasps: “Real men come in through the door.” Santa turns around to see his Georgian counterpart, Tovlis Papa (Father Frost), sporting his traditional gear and an unusual bad mood. While grudgingly watching his Western rival, Tovlis Papa has been using his dagger to whittle a piece of wood into the Georgian version of a Christmas tree, a chichilaki.
The next scene shows a trail of blood, leading to the bathroom. Santa’s leg is sticking out of the bathtub. Tovlis Papa, changed into protective coveralls and glasses, is getting ready to pour acid into the tub when a little boy walks in. After a suspenseful moment, the kid, with an approving nod from Tovlis Papa, drags off the dead Santa’s bag of gifts.
For many Georgians, the art-video, produced by a Tbilisi studio known for its edgy TV ads, hit a raw nerve with its allusion to friction between nationalism and Westernization.
Interpretations vary widely about whether the intention was to support or mock the tendency of being jealously protective of traditional Georgian ways against “corrupting” Western influences.
Both sides see reason to take offense. “This is rubbish! What are they trying to say? That the European Santa is all good and nice, and the Georgian Father Frost is a murderer, an evil brute? What kind of sentiment are they stoking?” seethed Manana Kobakhidze, a senior member of parliament from the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Another MP, Irma Inashvili, a leader of the Patriots’ Alliance party and an ardent defender of tradition, also condemned the video as an “insult to national traditions.”
Amidst the growing number of complaints and condemnations, often in exceptionally crude language, placed on the responsible studio’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, the video also earned some fans.
Some viewers enjoyed what they saw as a jab at nationalist machismo, embodied by the traditionally attired, dagger-swinging Father Frost. “Down with Santa, viva Tovlis Papa!” joked one user on Facebook. “Don’t know about you, but I laughed my head off. As a satire of extreme cultural conservatism, this is spot on,” wrote another.
The video’s director, Davit Jibladze, said the video was simply meant to bring a dash of dark humor to the holidays and asked viewers not to read too much into it. He confessed, however, to a personal preference for Tovlis Papa.
“We just wanted to tell a slightly different story, while everybody else is doing the same sort of banal and boring stuff for New Year,” he said, Palitranews.ge reported.
Some argued that the video desensitizes children to violence by besmirching both Tovlis Papa and Santa Claus with blood and gore, but opinions diverge here, too.
“Congratulations, you just destroyed New Year and Christmas for so many kids, especially the poor boy who is in the video,” reads one online comment on Facebook.“There are plenty of horror movies with kids in them, how is this different?” countered another user.
The video is marked for an adult audience, but human rights defenders, including Ombudsperson Ucha Nanuashvili, called for removing the video from the web to prevent children from seeing its violence.
For a Georgian child, the winter holidays' customs and symbols can be complicated enough as they are. New Year is celebrated on December 31/January 1, and ranks as the major event, but comes again on January 14, in keeping with the Gregorian calendar.
As in other Eastern Orthodox countries, Father Frost or Santa comes to Georgia on New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas, which is primarily a religious holiday and observed on January 7.
But Western-style celebrations of Christmas have also been influencing Georgia, and, for children, it is not always clear which bearded old man comes and when at this time of year. One killing the other is hardly going to help matters.
In any case, while debates raged over the video, another Santa seized the opportunity to rob a supermarket in Georgia’s third largest city of Batumi, near the border with Turkey. As the clock struck midnight on January 1, and fireworks lit up the sky, a man clad as Santa walked into the store and demanded 40,000 lari ($14,734) at gunpoint.
“He was probably running short on gifts for the children, so he did what he had to do,” one eyewitness joked.
The man was not found. Some say he escaped to neighboring Turkey. Or perhaps the North Pole.