Happy Georgian Christmas!
I have to say, I prefer the Georgian way of celebrating the holidays to how we do it at home. Here, New Year’s is the day associated with the tree, the presents, the parties–or, as one of my favorite Christmas movies refers to it, “that yearly bacchanalia of peace on earth and good will to man.” Then January 7 is Orthodox Christmas (in Georgian “shoba,” or “birth”), the strictly religious holiday associated with carols and churchgoing.
In this way the Orthodox world has managed to cleverly sidestep the whole “putting the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas” issue plaguing Western countries today after centuries of trying to make religion fun and commercially viable. I find the Georgian approach to be more realistic and thus more inclusive. And possibly even more commercially viable, given the amount of time everyone is expected to take off work in order to celebrate.
Orthodox Christmas is celebrated with midnight mass and caroling–groups of children and teenagers going house to house, singing carols (or, more likely, simply making a racket) in return for candy and/or money. So, a bit like Halloween.
In Tbilisi, this is followed by a haphazardly organized public parade known as Alilo. Groups of children in choir uniforms form a parade along with speaker-mounted trucks blasting carols, various livestock, a giant cauldron of incense, trucks decorated like elephants (which were of course present at the birth of Christ), and other plaster sculptures of animals supported by pallbearers. These included giraffes and a giant golden turtle wearing a crown, the relevance of which no one was able to explain to me. The general public is allowed to follow the procession down Rustaveli to the offices of the Orthodox patriarch, who distributes toys. Don’t tell me that this weird blurring of church and secular tradition doesn’t lead to hundreds of little Georgians out there who think Ilia II is Santa Claus.
Speaking of which, Georgia has its own Santa Claus–“tovlis babua” (Grandfather Snow), possibly adapted from the Russian Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). These characters were both seen as acceptable alternatives to the capitalist/religious Santa Claus under Soviet rule. Interestingly, some holiday events in Georgia feature both Tovlis Babua and Santa Claus. You’d think this would be confusing, but Georgian parents don’t seem to make much of an effort with the whole Santa thing anyway so I’m not sure that kids over four here are really expected to “believe.”
Another fun tradition in Georgia is that of the chichilaki. These small wooden trees (made of long curly shavings from hazelnut or walnut) are for sale almost everywhere beginning in late December. Although a Western Georgian tradition, they have become universally popular in Georgia, in part because deforestation concerns have led to a ban on traditional Christmas trees. Chichilaki are decorated with candy, and are said to absorb all the bad memories accumulated in the home over the last year. On Christmas Eve, they are burnt as a way of symbolically reducing bad memories to ashes.