One of the toughest clauses in the basic religion-beat reporter contract is the one that states: "Thou shalt write at least one or two stories every year during every major religious holiday and these stories may not be recycled more than once a decade." Ugh. So, you ask, what constitutes a "major holiday"? That depends, in part, on your market and your editors. As America grows more complex and diverse, the challenge only grows.
One story that has always fascinated me -- in the way that train wrecks are fascinating -- is the cultural reality that church-state specialists usually call the "December dilemma." In a post earlier today, Doug described one scene in this annual holiday drama that usually receives some attention in the press. I have written many a Scripps Howard column on these issues, as well.
Everyone knows that the slice-and-dice approach to blending Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice is having a major impact in the public square and at the mall. But to really get America fired up -- both the red and blue zones -- you need a dose of prime-time sex and soap. This is precisely what may be happening with "Chrismukkah," the interfaith religious season that is being pushed, with a world-weary wink and jolly cynicism, on the teen-hit series called The O.C., which, for the uncool, is a reference to Orange County, California.
Jonathan Eig takes a look at this would-be phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal. The key figure is a character named Seth Cohen, who has a Protestant mother and a Jewish father. He explains that in his house, no one has to choose between Christmas or Hanukkah. The future belongs to "Chrismukkah," the new holiday that is "sweeping the nation."
In case we needed further proof that life imitates art, "The O.C." inspired Michelle (the daughter of a minister) and Ron Gompertz (a Reform Jew) of Livingston, Mont., to design their own Chrismukkah cards and register ownership of www.chrismukkah.com. If Chrismukkah is not quite sweeping the nation, it's at least generating a little cash for the Gompertzes in the windup to this year's holidays.
"It was one of those moments when a spark goes off," says Mr. Gompertz, describing what happened when he heard Seth Cohen say "Chrismukkah." "It was so much more elegant that Hanumas or the other jokey names we'd come up with."
There are several serious subjects lurking in the background, such as the heated debates among Jews over the effects of intermarriage and families that attempt a half-and-half approach to religious faith. Eig notes that when MixedBlessing Inc. started making interfaith cards a decade ago, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Committee issued a joint statement complaining that interfaith cards diminished the sacred symbols of both faiths.
Yeah, right. Tell that to the people at Fox Television and Hallmark. Truth is, it is a short leap from your local television news anchors sweetly singing the joys of "The Holidays" to popular culture that actively attempts to promote the blending of religions. The only people who are offended are the traditional believers in the various religions who actually take the symbols and doctrines seriously.
Nevertheless, notes Eig, the numbers are on the side of the interfaith merchants, at least on the Jewish side of the mall.
A recent study of America's 5.2 million Jews showed that nearly half of all Jewish newlyweds had married non-Jews. That's a huge concern to many Jewish leaders, but it's jingle-jingle to the ears of Chrismukkah merchants. Interfaith couples have been blending their rituals for ages. The only thing new about Chrismukkah, really, is that it puts a name to something millions of families are already celebrating. So don't be surprised in the seasons ahead if we get some new holiday songs and a few tree ornaments that swing both ways.
So the O.C. angle is simply sizzle on a story that actually contains some meat. That is what religion writers have to look for this time of year. That sound you hear is the clock ticking and the holiday deadlines approach.