How The Director Of 'The O.C.'s "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" Created A Holiday Phenomenon

- The OC -
How The Director Of 'The O.C.'s "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" Created A Holiday Phenomenon

Everyone remembers the moment they fell in love with Seth Cohen. For me, it was when he held up a menorah in one hand and a candy cane in the other. Watching him introduce Ryan and the audience to Chrismukkah — “the greatest super-holiday known to mankind” — I knew: It was love. This was, of course, the opening scene of what would become one of the most iconic episodes of The O.C.’s four season run, "The Best Chrismukkah Ever."

Even before “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” aired on December 3, 2003, the show had been well-received by both audiences and fans. Teens across the country (my sisters and myself included) would record every episode on VHS live so that they could watch them over and over again on weekends. Fans were taken by Ryan Atwood's signature chocker/leather bracelet combo and Summer's incredible use of shade in a pre-shade world.

But, it was Chrismukkah that took the show from a very normal and healthy obsession to something that I could actually relate to. So, 17 years later, I reached out to episode director Sanford Bookstaver to find out everything I could about how the magic of Chrismukkah was created.

Writing Chrismukkah

Image: HBO Max

As a Jewish kid who celebrates Christmas, I had never seen anything like my holiday experience represented in the way "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" did at the time. And, as it turns out, neither had Bookstaver. “I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised as a very religious Jew,” he tells me over the phone. “When I was growing up we always had a Christmas tree and a menorah in my house, which was like an amazing coincidence that they actually wrote an episode about something I had dealt with in my childhood.”

In fact, Seth Cohen’s holiday was so similar to his own family’s traditions that their first reaction to the episode was to ask him if he had come up with it. “[My family] was just excited because that was literally my childhood,” Bookstaver says, adding that his family had never heard the term “Chrismukkah” before the episode, but, now almost two decades later, they won’t call the December holidays anything else.

The real credit, Bookstaver insists, goes to Stephanie Savage, who wrote the episode. “This was the first script she ever wrote,” Bookstaver recalls, “And it’s such an excellent script and her dialogue was so witty.”

Like the holiday it helped define, “The Best Chrismukkah Ever” has everything — “eight days of presents, followed by one day of many presents,” not included. It has Seth’s signature nerdy hijinks, a satisfying Sandy-Caleb legal feud, a black tie party that no teenager should ever be forced to attend, Marissa drinking at said party, Ryan alluding to his seriously f*cked up childhood, and, of course, some good, old fashioned relationship drama adorned with chunky highlights and wispy bangs.

But more than the soapy dramatic goodness, it’s the fast-paced dialogue and smart quips that shine bright like the menorah in the episode.

Filming Chrismukkah

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“I knew very specifically that I wanted to start the episode on a candy cane and a menorah and on Seth Cohen’s face,” Bookstaver says. “Slowly pulling back to reveal the duality of this holiday.”

There are plenty of other small details in the Cohen household that reflect how Chrismukkah is “sweeping the nation — or at least the living room,” as Seth insists. Though the director admits that the decorations “leaned more towards Christmas,” what with the Christmas tree on prominent display, there are also plenty of nods to Hanukkah hidden throughout. The ornamental balls in the living room, for example, are bright blue, and eagle-eyed viewers will spot that Sandy’s stocking on the fireplace is decorated with the Star of David.

“All of that was deliberate,” Bookstaver confirms, adding that creating Chrismukkah on screen was a major collaborative process. “We [Bookstaver, Schwartz, and Savage] all went through it to try to find those little fine details.”

But beyond the set dec and details, is the script. It’s long been an O.C. legend that Brody would improvise some of Seth Cohen’s lines. (Josh Schwartz himself previously said that Seth's love of Death Cab For Cutie was something inspired by the actor's own personal taste.) Bookstaver confirms to me that Brody loved to come up with things on the spot.

“Adam had this incredible gift for improv that we discovered very early,” the director, who helmed three episodes in Season 1, recalls. “So every time I worked with him, I would run two or three takes as scripted, and then I would always do a take where I said, ‘Adam, say whatever you want, like literally anything that comes out of your mouth.’”

As for the Chrismukkah episode, however, Bookstaver is hesitant to say if any lines were improvised at all. “I don’t want to disrespect Stephanie’s script.”

The Legacy Of Chrismukkah

Image: HBO Max

The O.C. may have ended in 2007, but Chrismukkah remains. Walk into a store post-Thanksgiving, and odds are you'll see Chrismukkah greeting card options. On Etsy, fans sell O.C.-inspired holiday merch, like custom Chrismukkah sweaters, and even the Yamaclaus (as introduced in Season 2's Chrismukkah episode, "The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't"). It’s a bonafide phenomenon, and a perfect example of how the show differentiated itself from other teen soaps like Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill by creating a pop culture mainstay.

“We were trying to change [the teenage soap genre] in terms of the comedy and tone of it,” Bookstaver says, pointing to the show’s spotlighting of indie rock bands and famous soundtracks. Chrismukkah as a concept was just another thing that would set the show apart. “When Chrismukkah [was invented], it was just exciting to do something that we felt was a new holiday and possibly could be something that became iconic,” he recalls. Given how many people use the term "Chrismukkah" today, I'd say they were right.

Images: HBO Max

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