How the sitcom stole Santa – and other festive stories

Commercialism has all but killed Christmas. Sara Sayeed looks at the festive cults being created in its wake.

Let’s be honest, Christmas isn’t just one day of festivities: it’s an entire festive season that plunges us, for at least a month, into a hyped-up, commercial frenzy. Mid-November rolls around and before you know it, Starbucks is already serving up Eggnog Lattes in new ‘holiday season’ cups and the checkout boy at your local corner shop is wearing a Santa hat and acting eerily chirpy.

For many followers of non-Christian religions, however, Christmas just seems like an overly-extended birthday party that they weren’t invited to. Josh Schwartz, the Jewish creator of cult Californian drama The O.C., bemoans this exclusivity: “What Jewish boy or girl growing up doesn’t feel a little jealous? They get all the good songs, the tree, Frosty and Rudolph. We get dreidels. It’s just not the same.”

Xmas York, Nov '06
A festive Funfair brings Christmassy cheer to York. Photo: Georgi Mabee

Oi Humbug. Well, if there’s no room at that inn, make another one. Schwartz has managed to do just that, resolving all his childhood angst through Seth Cohen – the O.C.’s infamous and endearing skater-indie boy with a “Jew fro”. Growing up with “Waspy McWasp” for a mum, and dad having unresolved issues about being a “poor struggling Jew growing up in the Bronx”, every year little Seth was faced with a seasonal crisis. His solution: Chrismukkah, the interfaith amalgam of Christmas and Hanukkah (for those of you who were in doubt). Who knew that Seth’s words to an eternally baffled and bemused Ryan would be so prophetic? “It’s the new holiday Ryan” he says, with a knowing, adorable grin. “And it’s sweeping the nation.”

Corporations are exploiting inter-faith tensions to breed a new wave of kitschy merchandise that will replace the old Christmas trimmings.

And swept away it has. You can now buy a Chrismukkah cook book and enjoy a Matzah Pizza, Meshugga Nog or a Yule Plotz of your very own. Not that culinary-inclined? Go to where you can buy ‘Yarmauclaus’, ‘mish-mash-menorahs’ (they come with candy-cane candles) or tree-shaped ‘December dilemma Dreidels’. Strapped for cash? Just peruse Chrismukkah blog. Chrismukkah has now propagated a consumer market to rival (and possibly conquer?) the billion dollar Christmas paraphernalia industry.

Surprisingly, however, Seth’s feat of genius creativity isn’t unprecedented. Chrismukkah was actually created by German Jews in the 1800s, who called the holiday Weihnukkah (Weihnachten being the German word for Christmas.).

Neither is the O.C. the first T.V. show to spawn an entire festive cult. Approximately ten years ago, Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza created Festivus, a non-denominational, anti-commercialisation alternative to Christmas. Costanza’s genesis story differs a little from Cohen’s though:

Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realised there had to be another way.

Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll?

Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born… a Festivus for the rest of us!

Cosmo Kramer: That must’ve been some kind of doll.

Frank Costanza: She was.

Indeed. Aside from the heart-warming anecdotes and the obligatory Festivus pole, (an aluminum pole utilized for its ‘high strength-to-weight ratio’ and because Costanza “finds tinsel distracting”) Festivus is founded on two main principles: The Airing of Grievances and The Feats of Strength. In ‘The Airing’, each person at the Festivus dinner table informs their friends and family of all the times that they have been disappointed by them that year. After this collective slating comes the “Feats of Strength”, where the head of the family wrestles with other members until they have been pinned to the ground. Just a more structured version of most family gatherings then.

As ridiculous as this ritual sounds, it has nestled itself quite comfortably into contemporary seasonal proceedings. Jennifer Galdes, a Chicago restaurant publicist who has been hosting Festivus parties for three years now, remarks: “[More and more] people, when they get an invite, respond with, ‘Will there be an Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength?’”

However, do these kitschy elements threaten to render the occasion more parodic than meaningful? Virgin Mobile USA’s 2004 television commercial certainly seems to endorse that suggestion. The advert is based on yet another multi-holiday fusion, combining Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to create the bizarre and completely unpronounceable Chrismahanukwanzakah. Intended to satirise the secular effects of political correctness on the holiday season, the cartoon showed bizarre, hybrid characters – such as a Vishnu-esque, turban-wearing Santa, which sings a Chrismahanukwanzakah song extolling the virtues of “an all-inclusive celebration/No contractual obligation” and attempts to soothe religious tension with a camera phone: “Whose faith is the right one, It’s anybody’s guess, What matters most is camera phones for $20 less”.

More crude than catchy, the advert unveils the covert, profit-orientated ethos of inventions such as Chrismukkah, Hannumas or Festivus. Arguably, commercial corporations are exploiting inter-faith tensions to breed a new wave of highly marketable, kitschy paraphernalia to replace the old, somewhat tired, Christmas trimmings. The O.C. website is selling Yarmuclaus’ for $15.95, Chrismukkah Holiday, and the book Chrismukkah: Everything You Need to Know to Celebrate the Hybrid Holiday sold out in its first print run, only four days after being released. Seems like the creator of Scientology had a point when he said “the quickest way to make a million is to start your own religion.”

There certainly seems to be a Chrismukkah backlash, which protests the creation of an ostensibly inter-faith holiday that negates the respective significance of the originals. Weeks after publication, the author of Chrismukkah, Ron Gompertz received a slew of angry emails lambasting the holiday. Here’s a particularly Grinchy one: “You should be ashamed of yourself making money on trying to reduce the already shrinking Jewish population. I picked up your book and felt sick. To tell you the truth, you should be shot. I spit on your whole marketing scheme”.

Seth also voiced concerns in season two of the O.C.: “What if it’s starting? The Chrismukkah backlash… What if it’s getting too big and commercial? It’s like it started out as this really cool, cult holiday, and then all of the sudden there’s too much pressure!”

But this seems overly puritanical and just a bit paranoid. Firstly, as Seth points out, having “Jesus and Moses on its side” gives it “twice the resistance of normal holidays”. Secondly, Chrismukkah is simply re-vivifying the holiday season with some much needed irreverent spark – a new panto-humour of sorts. Christmas is meant to be a ‘merry’ time: it’s ‘the season to be jolly’ for Christ’s sake (no pun intended). As the author Mary Ellen Chase suggested, “Christmas is…a state of mind”, but the only state of mind those Eggnog Lattes put me in is bored bemusement. Yarmuclaus has more of an “Oy Joy” effect. So forsake the usual Crimbo, log onto and surprise your friends with a Merry Muzeltov. In more traditional terms: ‘And then Seth said, “let there be Chrismukkah.” And it was good.’

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