When thinking back on holiday specials of yore for this project, the first thing that popped into my head wasn’t nostalgia for my Rankin/Bass- and Chuck Jones-filled youth. Instead, I immediately focused on a much more recent obsession: Chrismukkah. Created by The O.C.’s Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) as a way to bridge the holiday gap between his Christian mother, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and Jewish father, Sandy (Peter Gallagher), Chrismukkah is a mish-mash of all the best parts of Christmas and Hanukkah. As Seth describes it, it’s “eight days of presents followed by one day of many presents.”
As we soon learn, Chrismukkah has about as little to do with religion as a department-store Santa. Kirsten’s family is only Christian in that they aren’t really anything else, and the most Jewish thing about Sandy is the schmear on his morning bagel. Instead, the creed of Chrismukkah is really the creed of the show: bringing together that which doesn’t seem like it belongs together. For Chrismukkah, this is the Christian and Jewish holidays. For the show, it’s the Cohens and Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), the troubled kid from Chino they’ve brought into their beautiful coastal life.
The O.C. had many flaws: It introduced far too many new characters throughout the years, few of which ever became fully realized; it never quite figured out how to pace its long-term story arcs; and its tendency toward melodrama was often groan-worthy. Still, it holds a special place in my heart. Coming off the loss of my dearly beloved Dawson’s Creek, I was desperately searching for something to fill the Creek-shaped hole in my life when the Cohen family swooped in and immediately won me over. Witty, soapy, funny, warm, and with an ironic sense of self rarely before seen in a teen drama, The O.C. quickly became not only an obsession for me but also for millions of other people across the country, making it one of the few teen dramas to become a true breakout in its first season.
Watching these Chrismukkah episodes (if you want to follow along, all four are currently streaming on TheWB.com), it’s easy to see why the show was so easily embraced. The O.C. debuted in a world that hadn’t yet been burned out on the Southern California faux-fur, faux-tan, faux-everything aesthetic of The Real Housewives and Laguna Beach. As with Beverly Hills 90210 before it, people were still fascinated by this rich alien land and its rich alien ways. What was so smart about the show, though, was how it wrapped the melodrama and opulence in the loving embrace of a central family so likeable you could forgive almost any transgression, so long as there was a Cohen happy ending waiting at the end.
What’s most interesting about the Chrismukkah episodes is how they are used within the narrative of the show itself. These aren’t stand-alone Christmas episodes, as you might see on most shows; they live within the arc of the season as a whole and are almost always used to reveal secrets and advance major plot points. These elements don’t make for easy drop-in viewing like a “special Christmas episode” might, but they do give the episodes a surprising emotional weight, allowing the traditional redemption and happy-ending arc to feel earned, rather than tacked on as some sort of sappy Christmas cliché. A thread of underlying sadness unites all four Chrismukkah episodes, but it’s a sadness that begs to be redeemed by the end of the hour. Chrismukkah is really about traditional Christmas togetherness and your standard happy ending; it’s the everyday miracle of people coming together to create something magical.
The four Chrismukkah episodes also almost perfectly echo the creative viability of the show at that specific point in its existence. Season one of The O.C. is famous for burning bright and fast, churning through plots that mixed snarky fun, high drama, and liberal quantities of pop-culture references. All of these elements are equally represented in “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” but the most memorable scene, and one that best represents the show’s more playful side, is Summer’s “gift” to Seth.
That this sequence was bookended by scenes of Marissa’s (Mischa Barton, as Ryan’s deeply damaged love interest) downward spiral and the reveal of Caleb’s (Alan Dale, as the guy he always plays—Captain Evil) shady land deal encapsulates what the show did best but what ultimately led to its downfall.
By season two, The O.C. had cycled through so many plots that new characters, like Lindsay (Shannon Lucio, another, blander love interest for Ryan), were introduced to invigorate the storytelling, with varying amounts of success. Although season two is where the show started to show signs of strain, “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t” was one of its stronger episodes, focusing more on the core cast and the new cast members who were directly related to them, leaving less successful additions out of the proceedings. When Lindsay is revealed as Caleb’s daughter there is real pathos—and real stakes—which make the Cohens’ coming together at the end to bring Chrismukkah to her all the more touching. (Plus, Lindsay introduced yarmuclauses to the world. You can’t go wrong with a good yarmuclaus.)
Season three, however, is a Chrismukkah episode almost best forgotten—and the same is true of the season itself. “The Chrismukkah Bar-Mitzvahkkah” is an absolutely fabulous title and a really fun premise—Ryan gets a bar mitzvah—completely undone by dead-weight characters. By this point, the show was so enslaved to Marissa’s drama that everything in her orbit got dragged down, including the once-reliable Chrismukkah episode. Essentially, Marissa’s quest to save Johnny (Ryan Donowho, as a surfing, public-school-attending, bad boy potential love interest for Marissa) isn’t unlike the Cohens’ quest to help Lindsay in season two, or Ryan’s quest to protect Marissa, but what once felt like earned melodrama spirals out of control into over-the-top silliness. Because no one actually cares about Johnny, a preposterous character the show attempted to play straight, the once-reliable Chrismukkah happy ending falls flat.
The show redeems itself, however, with season four’s “The Chrismukk-huh?”, my favorite of the Chrismukkah episodes. The O.C.’s final season was a bit of a rebirth for the show itself: Without Marissa around, many of the characters finally got a chance to grow and change, and the increased presence of Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser, as one of the few memorable characters introduced in later seasons) was a welcome breath of fresh air. “The Chrismukk-huh?” isn’t original—it’s a spin on the old It’s A Wonderful Life trope—but everyone involved embraces the absurdity of it with zeal, making it a delight.
Beyond the simple pleasure of seeing just how wrong everything would be if Ryan and Taylor never existed, the episode uses the alternate-reality device as a way to allow Ryan to move past Marissa’s death. No matter how much Marissa had dragged down the show (and its holiday episodes), she still had meaning to the characters, and the show had to find a way to let them say goodbye. Using the Chrismukkah episode to allow Ryan to do this not only disguised the process in an entertaining way but made the actual moment of realization much more poignant. Marissa Cooper, like The O.C., was destined to burn bright and fast and die young. Allowing Ryan—and in turn, the show—to recognize her place in their shared past lets everyone move on to the future, without regret.
Most of these observations have nothing to do with Chrismukkah itself, because most of the Chrismukkah episodes only use the holiday as framework. The O.C. was never really interested in telling Christmas or Hanukkah stories. It was interested in telling stories about family, both those you’re born into and those you create, and about how it doesn’t matter how messy life gets as long as you have the right people to get you to that happy ending. Chrismukkah is about the uniting of two disparate things to create a more inclusive and happy whole, even if that whole is kind of awkward as a result. As I think back to the many different Christmas holidays I’ve celebrated, both with family and with those I consider family in my heart, I’m not sure there’s a better sentiment to represent the holiday spirit than that.
Tomorrow: A very special musical celebration.