Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah to You!


Dec. 10, 2004 — -- Move over, Festivus. Chrismahanukwanzakah is the alternative December holiday du jour.

Or maybe you both light candles and decorate a tree, so you'd like to officially celebrate Chrismukkah this year.

As nontraditional "holidays" go, things have come a long way since "Seinfeld's" Frank Costanza introduced "a Festivus for the rest of us" back in 1997.

This year, Chrismahanukwanzakah -- devoted to "everything people love about the holidays" -- will fall on Dec. 13, courtesy of Virgin Mobile and its new ad campaign. And the 18-day-long Chrismukkah observance began Dec. 7, according to Ron Gompertz, owner of Chrismukkah.com, a Web site devoted to the celebration of the holiday.

Gompertz, who is Jewish, and his wife, Michelle, who is the daughter of a Protestant minister, were inspired by an episode of Fox's "The OC" in which Seth Cohen coins the phrase describing his interfaith family's Christmas and Hanukkah traditions.

"Chrismukkah is sort of the great umbrella name for describing the chaos and whimsy and excitement that goes on during the month of December," Gompertz said.

What started as a small online venture -- selling Chrismukkah cards and other items commemorating both faiths -- has blossomed into something of a Chrismukkah miracle. Gompertz said he and his wife anticipated selling a few thousand cards -- featuring such images as a reindeer with menorah antlers or a snowman made out of matzoh balls -- but within the first month of being in business they sold 25,000.

"We're sharing a point of view with many, many people who are in the same situation as we are," he said. "I don't think I realized how many."

Perhaps not, but the number of interfaith families is growing. According to a survey released last year by United Jewish Communities, there are 5.2 million Jewish people in America, and 31 percent of those who are married have spouses of other faiths. And of those married since 1996, 47 percent have intermarried.

While this raises serious issues of how religion is practiced in such households, the creators of Chrismukkah are promoting the purely secular aspects of Christianity and Judaism through the mingled symbols and traditions of holidays that happen to both involve gift-giving and occur in the same month.

The ultimate goal of Chrismahanukwanzakah is a bit more focused -- on selling Virgin Mobile phones. But the sentiment behind the incorporation of icons of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Islam, paganism, Eastern religions and even agnosticism and Scientology into one big festive season is sincere.

"We figured we would acknowledge everything and celebrate the diversity of it in our own way," said Howard Handler, chief marketing officer, adding, "We didn't really try to zero in on religion in and of itself."

The Chrismahanukwanzakah television and Internet ads invite one and all, through such characters as Hasidic twins, sitar-playing Santas and an "Afro angel," to take part in "an all-inclusive celebration" and mobile phones with "no contractual obligation."

Gompertz said most people have been very receptive to the idea of Chrismukkah. "Chrismukkah's a state of mind," he said. "It's not really literally a holiday. We're certainly not proposing mixing religion in a new cult here in Montana. It already exists for millions of people."

Still, there have been some negative responses from people of both faiths objecting to the mixture of traditions. But Gompertz said they are missing the point. "All I can say to these people is first, lighten up," he said. "This is the secular thing. Christmas works on several levels -- a religious level and a secular, commercial level. … Is Frosty the Snowman Christian? Can Rudolph be enjoyed by Jewish children, too?"

Rather than diminish the importance of each holiday, Gompertz said he hopes Chrismukkah will encourage discussion and allow more children in interfaith families to understand the meanings behind both celebrations and religions. And he said many people are ready for some unity.

"A lot of us are anxious about issues like the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, the separation of church and state," he said. "A lot of people are embracing what we do. They see it as a reaction to increasingly conservative viewpoints."

Handler said Chrismahanukwanzakah had a similar beginning. "For so many people, this really is a very, very upbeat time of year, and without being goofy, it's a time of hope, too," he said. "We just wanted to be festive and bring everyone in -- pagans and elves and cavemen."

He also acknowledged the need for some togetherness. "It's a little bit of, can we all get along? Can everybody just relax and lighten up?

"It doesn't have to be about red or blue or north or south," he said. "Let's just have fun and celebrate the things that are good."

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