At first it seemed normal to Michelle Gompertz to be sitting in an Indian restaurant listing to Kenny G recordings of pop Christmas carols. Then she grew disoriented.
This Indian restaurant was in New Delhi. She was surrounded by Hindu culture, but nobody thought twice about listening to the same holiday saxophone Muzak that would be playing in American shopping malls.
“I knew that Christmas was everywhere. But it really hit me,” said Gompertz, the daughter of a United Church of Christ pastor in Indiana. “I remember thinking, 'Where are we? What season is this, anyway?'”
She remembered that scene after she married a Jewish New Yorker and started planning holiday festivities in the San Francisco Bay area. It seemed like all of their close friends shared a common bond one spouse was Christian and the other Jewish.
What kind of decorations should they use? What songs were they supposed to sing and what songs were they supposed to avoid? When you live in one of America's 2.5 million Jewish-Christian households, what season is this?
“Everybody knows that what you're supposed to say is 'Happy Holidays' and leave it at that,” said Ron Gompertz. “But when you're in an interfaith family it's more than that. It's kind of Hanukkah and it's kind of Christmas.
“When I was a kid we tried calling it 'Hanumas.' On Seinfeld they came up with 'Festivas,' but that wasn't right either.”
Then Ron and Michelle Gompertz watched the 2003 episode of the hip teen soap The O.C. in which anti-hero Seth Cohen explained the holiday ground rules in his interfaith family. This was a season about having it all all the parties, all the gifts, all the music. And the name of this season was “Chrismukkah.”
“All you had to do was say that two or three times Chrismukkah and it just sounded right,” said Ron Gompertz, who now lives in Montana with his wife and daughter.
The Gompertz clan made some cards for family and friends and claimed the rights to the domain. This year, they hired a designer and jumped into the marketplace with “Oy Joy” and “Merry Mazeltov” cards and gifts, with images ranging from an Orthodox Jewish Santa to a reindeer with antlers that hold menorah candles.
What precisely is “Chrismukkah”? Their press materials call it a secular “hybrid holiday” that begins with the eight-day Hanukkah season and extends through Christmas. This year, the Jewish “Festival of Lights” begins at sundown on December 7.
The Chrismukkah franchise is not alone. A company called MixedBlessing has marketed interfaith cards for 15 years and Hallmark Cards Incorporated now has four holiday offerings blending Jewish and Christian themes. A typical American Greetings Corporation “Merry Hanukkah” card shows a Jewish Santa inspiring his sleigh team with the cry: “On Isaac! On Izzy! On Eli! On Abe! On Levi! On Morty! On Shlomo! On Gabe!”
The problem with the “Oy to the World” punch lines is that, for many Jewish and Christian leaders, interfaith marriage isn't funny. During the past generation or so, nearly half of American Jews have married outside the faith. About a third of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews.
A new statement from the US Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee bluntly urges these parents to raise their children in one faith or the other. Attempting to raise children “simultaneously as both 'Jewish' and 'Catholic'…can only lead to violation of the integrity of both religious traditions, at best, and, at worst, to syncretism,” it said.
The problem for mixed-marriage families such as his, said Rod Gompertz, is that “The Holidays” have already been sliced, diced and secularized in the public square. Embracing “Chrismukkah” merely goes one step further and “recognizes the state of mind that we are already living in,” he said.
For millions of ordinary Americans, this is a season about Frosty the Snowman, shopping bags, Bing Crosby, twinkle lights and the whole mass-media experience. Thus, “Chrismukkah” isn't religious. It isn't the real Christmas or the real Hanukkah, he said.
“How are we supposed to balance what are actually fundamentally incompatible holidays? Our solution is to focus on the fun parts that we can enjoy without getting into all that theology.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.