A decade-plus of Catholic school in Texas will teach you a lot. It certainly taught me about spirituality and humanity, the power of prayer and our capacity for compassion. It also taught me to leave room for the Holy Ghost when I dance and how to properly hike up a below-the-knee hem on a plaid skirt. But there was one lesson that Sister Maxie and Father Gus didn’t cover, for it was a lesson that could only be taught by the half-Jewish, half-Christian boy of my dreams from TV. And this is the lesson of Hanukkah. Well, actually, Chrismukkah.
I first met Seth Cohen, the charming, affable son of Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, when I rented the box set of The O.C., a show about California, rich-kid problems and then some. I didn’t have a Jewish friend until my sophomore year of high school. As far as I knew, Hanukkah involved a bunch of candles, and, well, not much else. It definitely wasn’t a birthday party for Jesus like I was used to celebrating, or the arrival of Santa Claus in their homes, which I patiently awaited every Christmas. How sad I felt for Jewish kids who didn’t get to plop a tree in their living room and watch as presents and pine needles piled up underneath it. What did their homes smell like during the holidays if not pine? Did their family not get matching pajamas sets? Why were they eating Chinese food? I had so many questions.
And then: Seth Cohen to the rescue. As the offspring of what he described as, “a poor, struggling Jew growing up in the Bronx,” and “Waspy McWasp,” Cohen found himself at a crossroads. Did he want the “Menorah or a candy cane? Christmas or Hanukkah?” He just couldn’t choose. But he wouldn’t be defeated. Here enters, in the winter of 2003, season 1 of The O.C., the birth of “the greatest super holiday known to mankind,” otherwise known as Chrismukkah.
I already knew that Cohen was a nerd, and a smart one at that, but I didn’t know he was a genius. By “drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism had to offer,” Cohen introduced me to the traditions of Hanukkah that I had never been exposed to as a Catholic girl. Turns outs, to my surprise at the time, that Jewish kids get eight days of gifts. Why would Cohen want anything other than Hanukkah, then?
Here’s why: Chrismukkah was a holiday “with twice the resistance” of your standard holiday—with both the Maccabees and Jesus joining forces to bring you a Chrismukkah miracle, I guess. And, yes, there was a “Yamaclaus,” and a “Bar Mitz-vahkka” for a non-jewish Ryan Attwood in Season 4, but Cohen never abandoned what his super holiday meant to him.
To Cohen—and now to me, a Catholic girl learning about Jewish tradition through a TV show about the perils of a privileged life—Chrismukkah was about more than just “eight days of presents followed by one day of many presents.” Throughout the series’ four drama-ridden seasons, Cohen presented Chrismukkah as a means to bind together troubled relationships, from affair stricken marriages to broken friendships, and even used it to cope with death. He offered Chrismukkah as a symbol of hope to his fellow residents of Orange County, across denominations. And that’s a lesson I think we could all use—now and ever.
And they don’t teach you that in Catholic school. Well, they do, just with less Mischa Barton and more Virgin Mary.
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