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.

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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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Comments from our users:

Monday December 6th 2010, 7:30 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I was born on Chrismahahanukwanzekeh, so it must be the genuine holiday!

Up until now I've had to settle for Dec. 13 as being St. Lucy's day, when little girls wore garlands of candles on their heads and burnt off all their hair!

This is much better.
Monday December 6th 2010, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
As it happens, at the moment I am trying to put together, for my own pleasure, the best pieces of music I can find related to all the religions of the world. And I can tell you that I found splendid music for each religion.

You are saying that “Virgin Mobile went Chrismukkah one better with its "Chrismahanukwanzakah" promotion, which honored not only Christmas and Hanukkah but also Kwanzaa”, and what troubles me in this sentence is the word “honored” you use in association with A DESPICABLE VIRGIN MOBILE TV COMMERCIAL.

To honor is to show respect towards something, someone (in this instance to people celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa). Are we left with this thought after seeing the TV commercial? I don’t think so.

Whoever the creators of the TV commercial are, they have shown that they not only lack imagination but also that they do not have any knowledge whatsoever about what is the best the religions of the world have created from an artistic point of view. Certainly, if we consider the miserable images, lyrics and music the TV commercial has, they have neither honored the religions of the world, nor are they an honor to their profession.
Monday December 6th 2010, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Tom B. (Primm Springs,, TN)
You may have missed the point in the second part of you comment... loosen up a bit. 99.9% of these pseudo-holidays were and are capitalist quirks that find themselves swept up in merriment and gusto of the holidays. In my opinion separation of church and state exists for a good reason... make money, be irreverent and funny and still show reverence when appropriate what ever your bent. It separates us from the fanatics.
I see your point and enjoyed your comment... And Nancy, you put it all into perspective!
Tuesday December 7th 2010, 12:14 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Dear Tom B.
When a person tells me to loosen up I know immediately that he either doesn’t have a clue what I am talking about or that he has a biased view on the matter under discussion.

Being a word site par excellence, and given the opportunity to comment, I do not see why I should have not said what I thought about the use of the word “honor” in the context of the article especially after seeing the Virgin MobileTV commercial on the YouTube (to tell what you think for me is the friendliest deed of all deeds.

Christmas or Christmas Day is a holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem. The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. As a universally practiced "beautification" of the mitzvah (The term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness), the number of lights lit is increased by one each night.

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration held in the United States honoring universal African heritage and culture, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year. It features activities such as the lighting of a kinara (the candle holder used in Kwanzaa celebrations) and libations, and culminates in a feast and gift giving.

Just have a look on this site and see the beautiful picture entitled Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1500–10), by Italian painter Giorgio da Castelfranco.

Just have a look on this site and see the beautiful picture presenting a Bronze Pal-Bell oil-burning Hanukkah menorah from Israel circa 1948, by Maurice Ascalon.

Just have a look on this site and see the beautiful picture presenting a woman lighting kinara candles on a table decorated with the symbols of Kwanzaa.

Look at all these pictures and dare tell me that the creators of the TV commercial through their use of images, lyrics and music honored what these people celebrate, that the creators of the TV commercial are an honour to their profession, or that ultimately I have missed the point!

No further elaboration is necessary as far as I am concerned.
Tuesday December 7th 2010, 4:32 AM
Comment by: Waldo G. (London United Kingdom)
Hi. Enjoyed the article, but didn't Chrismukkah begin life on an episode of Friends pre-dating O.C. when Ross didn't want to dress up as Santa?
Thursday December 9th 2010, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
Good call Waldo G.! Although, it wasn't that Ross didn't want to dress up as Santa; there just weren't any Santa costumes left at the costume store, and he was forced to dress up as "The Holiday Armadillo!"
Friday December 10th 2010, 1:22 AM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
All I asked was, "Is Boxing Day to commemorate the Boxer Rebellion?"
Friday December 24th 2010, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Antonia, while currently the time we now call Christmas is, indeed, a commemoration of the birth of Jesus, the selection of this particular day has nothing to do with when Jesus was actually born (which we don't know), but probably was chosen to coincide with already-existing winter festivals, also probably as an attempt for one culture to take control, as it were, of another culture.

So we Christians should be a little gentle in our insistence of "honoring the reason for the season", it seems to me.
Saturday December 25th 2010, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Dear Sue B.
As I am not a religious person I look upon all religions from an aesthetical point of view, and as such I found that all of them in what I find most aesthetically pleasing, at least from my point of view, have found ways of singing the exellence in man (rather than its opposite). So I wonder, from an aesthetical point of view, what could mean "a little gentle". Perhaps you may be able to enlighten me!
Saturday December 25th 2010, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Antonia, the commonality of the words in the phrase "a little gentle", when taken in the context of your explanation of your own philosophy, sort of confuses me. I'll be happy to oblige, once I understand what it is you're asking me to explain.
Saturday December 25th 2010, 8:52 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
To me there is a very necessary reason for this holiday (however named) in polar-ish countries. The long dark is extremely hard on those of us in the animal kingdom who are diurnal and cannot hibernate. It isn't the cold so much, but the cabin-fever of night-blindness, which restricts all our behaviours and causes a terrible depression. This has always been fought by doses of fire and color, emotion and social bonding. That's a rather barren way to describe the defenses I mean, but as a person born in northern regions I know that it is not possible for us to make it through the big dark without all the help we can get.

And somehow - the artificial lights in the office don't seem to do the trick. So - Merry Christmas. Happy Yule.

Most of all, a dose of good will to all.

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