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December, 2004

Trendspotting: Fake Holidays

Has anyone noticed a new trend in The New York Times in the last few weeks? It seems that the Times has taken quite a liking to made up holidays/traditions. First it was last week's article "Twice the Annoyance, but a Tradition Emerges," about The OC's Chrismukkah celebration. Next it was an article on Festivus, the holiday everyone believes was made up by Seinfeld (the title of that one was "Fooey to the World: Festivus Is Come"). Then, yesterday, The Times threw us another bone (pun intended), with "Today He Is a Dog; Acually, He Always Was," about 13-year-old wheaten terrier named Admiral Rufus K. Boom's "bark mitzah."

Religious fundamentalists must be up in arms. But I wonder if this is this a sign of something bigger? The Festivus article is the most serious of the three and includes this bit of history:

The holiday evolved during the 1970's, when the elder Mr. O'Keefe began doing research for his book "Stolen Lightning" (Vintage 1983), a work of sociology that explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures.

Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. "In the background was Durkheim's `Elementary Forms of Religious Life,' " Mr. O'Keefe recalled, "saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community."

So are all these holidays reactions to mainstream religion? Chrismukkah grew out of a need for Seth Cohen on The OC to deal with having one Jewish and one Christian parent during the holidays. What he did was create his own holiday with bits and pieces from the other two. In doing so, he made a holiday that would most likely be disregarded by both religions. However, the holiday does bring to the forefront how children deal with their parents religion (especially when it's different). It's hard to imagine that this kind of interpretation would have been allowed fifty years ago (for that matter, I would imagine there were many fewer inter-faith marriages at that time). So as religious and racial lines continue to be blurred are we re-creating pseudo-religious traditions to deal with our shifting identities?

Much of what all these so-called traditions are about is bringing people together. In a country where religion has become such a point of contention, maybe there's a need to create new traditions that exist outside those traditional boundaries so that we can interact without the prejudices that have become associated with religious identities (thanks primarily to fundamentalists). It's kind of a fun and interesting idea.

What is also interesting is that in one way or another all these holidays remind us of our consumerism. Festivus throws away the traditional Christmas tree and decorations for a metal pole. Chrismukkah is Seth's super-holiday that allows him to get all the presents of both (eight days of one present and one day of many presents). The "bark mitzvah," while a joke, was a response to the rampant showoffism in Jewish culture (I don't know what word goes there), that can be seen in real Bar Mitzvahs. Mark Nadler, whose dog was honored, saw the chance to make a statement.

Mr. Nadler, who had his bar mitzvah years ago, said he was not unfamiliar with entertaining at bar mitzvahs at "high holy places like the Hard Rock Cafe." They sometimes seemed to be expensive productions that helped parents raise their social radar rather than sacred coming-of-age ceremonies for 13-year-olds. So Mr. Nadler thought he would give a bar mitzvah for his wheaten terrier and watch the eyebrows rise.
People are reacting to the fact that religions have all been taken over by their marketing possibilities. It's hard for Hallmark to take over a holiday where the only decoration is a metal pole (though Home Depot has some branding opportunities).

In the end, these traditions are fun responses to mainstream religion and it will be interesting to see if any of them become anything more in the future.

It's also completely possible that there's too little real news going on during the holiday season so The New York Times chose to fill their pages with articles about fake holidays.

December 21, 2004
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.