Ad and marketing creatives

Happy Made-Up Holidays!

Have you finished your Grouponicus shopping, or are you waiting till the last minute? Perhaps you prefer the austere rituals of Festivus or the Judeo-Christian compromise of Chrismukkah. Or is the pantheistic free-for-all known as Chrismahanukwanzakah more to your end-of-the-year taste?

Welcome to the winter wonderland of fictional holidays with very real—as in dollars-and-cents real—adherents. Thanks to some fertile imaginations and capitalist muscle, we now have more holidays to celebrate than our recent ancestors could have dreamed about.

Let's start with the newest one, Grouponicus, whose birth was announced by email a few weeks ago. Although I'd never heard of Grouponicus, I quickly grasped its import. As a member for several months of the Groupon community, I'd been receiving daily emails offering Groupon discounts—"group coupons"—on products, services, and classes in my vicinity. Now Groupon was evidently staking a proprietary claim in the annual shoppalooza known generically as The Holidays. The Grouponicus section of the Groupon site is devoted to "special holiday deals" available for three to five days instead of the customary 24 hours for Groupon offers.

"Grouponicus" interested me for several reasons. For one thing, it's a rare example of a fully branded holiday. Another Internet retailer I follow, the Italian fashion brand YOOX, has attempted this effect with less success: nothing about "YOOXMAS" says "be of good cheer." Of course, you're at a disadvantage when you start with an unlovely name like YOOX—whose origins were at one time said to be "Y and X, the male and female chromosomes," flanking "the 'zero' from the binary code." YOOX has come up with other similarly leaden coinages based on its primary brand name, including The New Yooxer, Yooxygen, and Yagency. (None of these caconyms appears to have hurt YOOX's standing in the marketplace, I hasten to add.)

Grouponicus is more than simply a clever name. Its inventors have created a comprehensive mythology to support the name, complete with a totem animal (Groupo, the Bargain Bird) and eight tongue-in-cheek Grouponicus tenets. (Samples: "Believers acknowledge that all other winter holidays are obsolete"; "For the duration of Grouponicus, you cannot own a dog"; "Families gather nightly to throw a list of regrets into a backyard Regret Hole.") 

Then there's the Grouponicus name itself. It's recognizable as an example of Dog Latin, a humorous device that suggests scholarly seriousness. Unrelated to children's Pig Latin (or Ig-pay Atin-lay), Dog Latin shows up in classicized university names ("Universitatis Yalensis") and in spoofy association names such as E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization dedicated to the study of the history of western-states heritage, particularly that of California's Gold Country. ("E Clampus Vitus" has no known meaning; its motto—Credo Quia Absurdum—is real Latin, more or less, and is generally translated as "I believe it because it is absurd.")

The beauty of "Grouponicus" is that the addition of a Latinate suffix turns the brand name into a compound that echoes the blended sounds of two real holiday names: Hanukkah and Christmas. The new name is credible, pronounceable, and humorous in one felicitous swoop.

I strongly suspect "Grouponicus" owes something to another contemporary mock-Latinate holiday with commercial roots: Festivus. Seinfeld fans know Festivus from a December 1997 episode in which the character Frank Costanza, father of George, revealed that he invented the holiday after finding himself in a department-store tug-of-war with another Christmas shopper over a doll. "I realized there had to be a better way," Frank said solemnly. The Costanza Festivus came with a set of rules: It's celebrated on December 23, its main symbol is a bare aluminum pole, and its rituals include the Feats of Strength and the Airing of Grievances (the latter of which bears a distinct resemblance to Grouponicus's Regret Hole). Festivus doesn't have a totem animal like Groupo, but its slogan—"A Festivus for the Rest of Us"—is awfully similar to the Grouponicus slogan: "Grouponicus for Every One of Us."

Whatever it owes to Seinfeld, the Festivus holiday actually predates the show by three decades. According to a 2004 New York Times story, it was invented in 1966 by Dan O'Keefe, a Reader's Digest editor living in Chappaqua, New York, as a celebration of his first date with his wife. No aluminum pole was involved. The word "Festivus" "just popped into his head," the Times reported—although surely it was inspired by "festival" and the rules of Latin noun-formation. Festivus became a family holiday after the births of the O'Keefe children, one of whom, Daniel, grew up to become a writer for Seinfeld, where he turned his family's quirky tradition into a pop-culture meme.

Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, but Festivus has enjoyed a surprisingly robust afterlife. In 2000, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's, known for its Zeitgeist-y marketing, introduced a limited-edition Festivus flavor: brown-sugar ice cream with gingerbread cookies and a ginger-caramel swirl. After it was discontinued, fans raised such an outcry that the company brought it back in 2004. (The flavor was finally retired in 2006, but you can request its return.) Meanwhile, several Festivus books have been published, and the Wagner Company in Milwaukee manufactures and sells Festivus poles. (Wagner has registered "Festivus Pole" as a U.S. trademark.) I also discovered Festivus T-shirts, Festivus jewelry, and small Festivus poles—in keeping with the Dog Latin pattern, they're called Deskivus Minimus, Deskivus Maximus, and Deskivus Ultimus—on eBay.

It's hard to compete with Seinfeld for long-running cultural impact, but in 2003, The O.C. tried, introducing a mashup of Christmas and Hanukkah in an episode titled "The Best Chrismukkah Ever." No specific rituals were referenced, although the bi-religious family at the center of the episode had both a Hanukkah menorah and a Christmas tree on display. Perhaps because many real-life families were experiencing a similar bidirectional tug, "Chrismukkah" caught on in a modest way. In 2004, a Jewish-Christian couple in Bozeman, Montana, launched ("The Merry Mish-Mosh Holiday"), which still thrives as an online emporium for Hanukkah-themed Christmas-tree ornaments and other gifts. In their first month in business, the couple sold 25,000 Chrismukkah cards. One contributing factor may have been Time magazine's inclusion of "Chrismukkah" in its 2004 "Year in Buzzwords" roundup.

That same watershed year, the communications company Virgin Mobile went Chrismukkah one better with its "Chrismahanukwanzakah" promotion, which honored not only Christmas and Hanukkah but also Kwanzaa—itself a made-up holiday, albeit a serious one: It was invented in 1966 by the American author and activist Maulana (Ron) Karenga as the first specifically African-American holiday; its name derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, "the first fruits of the harvest." Virgin Mobile's holiday—designated as December 13—actually went beyond the three major holidays portmanteaued in its name. According to a 2005 press release announcing the second coming of the festivities:

Chrismahanukwanzakah celebrates the joys of all things holiday like Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, elves—even Pagans and agnostics. Those who celebrate Chrismahanukwanzakah enthusiastically embrace what makes the season's different holidays unique and recognize the increasingly blended nature of the American family.  In fact, research from 2001 found that over 22 percent of American households identify themselves as religiously diverse, a number that continues to grow as the U.S. itself becomes increasingly multi-ethnic.

That sounds downright scholarly, but the TV and Internet commercials themselves—still viewable on YouTube—were freewheeling and a little bizarre. As a December 2004 ABC News account put it, the ads invited "one and all, through such characters as Hasidic twins, sitar-playing Santas and an 'Afro angel,' to take part in 'an all-inclusive celebration' and mobile phones with 'no contractual obligation.'"

So take your choice this season of fictional holidays--or stick with the centuries-old customs. Whatever you choose, you can be sure there's a marketer in the background, eager to help you tithe generously.

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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