Seth Cohen made up the Christmas and Hanukkah holiday combo in season one of the teen drama. Now it's taken on a life of its own.
Illustration by Zing Tsjeng; photos of "The O.C" characters by FOX and background via Pexels
In the first season of The O.C., Seth Cohen introduced a new term to the American lexicon: Chrismukkah. Seth was raised by personifications of two extremes: Sandy Cohen, the overly righteous Jewish father, and Kirsten Cohen, the anxious WASP mother with a chardonnay problem. Instead of having to choose between Hanukkah and Christmas, he created his very own tradition that brilliantly combined each holiday’s best attributes.
In each annual Chrismukkah episode, Seth markets his holiday as a solution to any problem. In season one, he uses it to cheer up a grumpy Ryan Atwood. And in season two, he uses it to welcome Kirsten’s recently discovered half-sister Lindsay Gardner into the family. By season three, as a testament to the show starting to go off the rails, Ryan celebrates his own Bar Mitzvah—a “Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvakkah!”
Like any American holiday, Chrismukkah has fallen victim to shameless commercialization. Amazon is fully stocked with sweaters, dish towels, and books cashing in. But The O.C.’s Chrismukkah episodes will always be whimsical and pure. When revisiting these episodes years later, the Cohens’ celebrations can be seen as an embrace of the reality of a hybrid identity. The Cohens, in all their sunny Southern Californian glory, are model American Jews who have found the perfect outlet to navigate the tension of assimilation.
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Growing up as an American Jew, thinking that Christmas might be more enjoyable and lighthearted than a holiday commemorating your historic marginalization is seriously frowned upon. When it comes to what us Jews do on this dreaded day, the tradition of eating Chinese food is the prevailing cliché. There’s an infinite amount of pop culture examples of Hanukkah being relegated to a special episode in which secondary characters are suddenly revealed to be Jewish.
Even in the recent, universally despised Frozen short that accompanies Pixar’s Coco, Olaf patronizingly sings about the Jewish children who are somehow celebrating their very own “holiday tradition” in a Scandinavian village. These heavy-handed gestures only reinforce how bizarre and different Hanukkah might appear to somebody who isn’t Jewish. In the Cohens’ Newport Beach mansion, however, this weirdness is celebrated with Santa hat Yarmulkes. But how apt is this ideal portrayal of an American Jewish family?
The Cohens serve as an example of a taboo that every American Jew knows all too well: intermarriage. In traditional Jewish households, marrying or even dating a non-Jew—often referred to as a gentile, goy, and in extreme, oh-no-he-really-bought-her-the-ring scenarios, shiksa—is simply unacceptable. However, the reality is that these marriages are fairly common. When I spoke to people who were raised in these scenarios, they discussed the isolation or confusion they experience during Christmas and how coming up with a coping mechanism—even if it isn’t as extravagant as the Cohens’ Chrismukkah spectacle—is necessary.
LA based comedian Jack Davis grew up in a Reform Jewish family. His parents gave him a choice to have a Bar Mitzvah—he chose to stage a runway show at the party. Even with his liberal upbringing, Christmas was shunned. Every year, he would spend his Christmas mornings at a bagel brunch with Jewish family friends.
But things changed when he turned 17. His dad’s girlfriend and her seven-year-old daughter moved in with them, forcing Jack to confront Christmas. He describes the first time he saw his dad bringing home a Christmas tree as “deeply sad because it meant my dad was with a nice blonde goy.”
Over time, he came up with his very own Chrismukkah regimen: He exchanges presents in the morning, goes to bagel brunch with his mom, brother, and family friends, and then comes back to his dad’s Christmas party to numb the sorrow of cultural confusion with alcohol. Though Jack does find little pockets of festive joy throughout the day, by the end of the night — and after many glasses of champagne—he feels like “[ Christmas ] isn't for me and that by celebrating it, I'm abandoning a part of myself.”
On the other hand, Claire Gordon, who describes herself as “culturally Jewish,” grew up in a more Cohen-esque situation. Her “mixed” family celebrates the best of both worlds, treating Christmas and Hanukkah as equals. “I always felt lucky to celebrate both,” she said. “The only time that it felt strange was if Hanukkah fell on Christmas day, and we had family or friends over who weren't Jewish.” Though her family doesn’t fuse the two holidays together, they share the Cohens’ positive outlook on cultural fluidity.
In tenth grade, when I spent a semester at an Israeli boarding school, one of my teachers argued that unlike the culture promoted by Zionism, The O.C. depicted Jewish people as “weak” and “cowardly.” When rewatching the Chrismukkah episodes, however, they seem anything but. Seth Cohen—the stereotypical nerdy Jew—refuses to insulate himself from the gentile world. In season two’s Chrismukkah episode, he comforts Lindsay, who just found out she’s his family member, by handing her a Christmas stocking and saying: “You are a Cohen!”
Seth explains that what makes his family special is that they laugh through their trauma. Now, as a Cohen, she’ll soon find the humor in her terrifying situation. Years later, their beachside conversation still encapsulates the spirit of Chrismukkah—it’s quirky, survivalist, and powerfully poignant.