Yule-Chanukah cards: Are the messages mixed

Five years ago, Phil Okrend sold fewer than 200 of his interfaith greeting cards to head-scratching shoppers who didn't know whether to send a Chanukah or Christmas card.

This year, the co-founder of MixedBlessing Inc. figures he'll sell about 300,000 of the cards — and that doesn't include the thousands that are being sent online, even though Chanukah ended a week ago.

"Every year, there seems to be more demand," said Okrend, a former New York lawyer who started an interfaith card business with his wife, Elise, nine years ago. "They've done real well in retail stores, and some of our cards just went up on the Yahoo site."

Okrend's North Carolina operation and others like it are capitalizing on a trend in the greeting card industry, one that blends the religious symbols of Chanukah and Christmas.

For example, one of Mixed-Blessing's most popular cards shows two cats sitting outside two windows; one wears a Christmas hat and the other a yarmulke. Inside one window is a menorah, inside the other is a Christmas tree.

Other companies have offerings that aren't so warm and fuzzy, such as a Santa Claus lifting up his fur-trimmed cap to reveal a yarmulke as he says, "Shalom." Another card shows a Santa responding, "Oy vey, you take the sleigh," after finding out Chanukah lasts eight days.

"To some people they're a lot of fun, and to some Jews they're quite insulting," said Joel Crohn, a San Rafael therapist who specializes in interfaith issues.

Insulting or not, the cards are popular. "We carry about 10 to 15 different [interfaith] designs and they're consistently among our best sellers," said Rob Morris, founder of the S.F.-based greeting card retailer Avant Card. "As a general rule, I think they probably sell more than a pure Chanukah card."

That isn't necessarily a good thing, said Rabbi Richard Winer of Reform Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore. Although he has never seen one of the interfaith cards — "I guess people have avoided sending them to me," he said with a laugh — he is staunchly against blurring the line between Chanukah and Christmas.

"I can see why they have a significant market, but they're problematic," added the co-chair of the East Bay Council of Rabbis, pointing to the perils of trying to raise a family with two religions or one blended religion. "Although most of this is innocent and people are well-intentioned about it, they don't always foresee the ramifications."

The blending of holidays isn't just a greeting-card phenomenon, either. Until a stock of two dozen sold out recently, Christmas-tree ornaments emblazoned with Stars of David were available at Santa's Workshop at Pier 39 in San Francisco.

Macy's and Neiman-Marcus in downtown San Francisco are quickly running out of purple and gold ornaments decorated with a chanukiah, Magen David and kiddush cup. Cost Plus stores in the Bay Area sell hand-blown glass ornaments shaped like dreidels.

Jacqueline Berg, a San Francisco artist, makes and sells pewter holly-sprig pins with four charms attached. Most of the charms are Christmas icons, but she occasionally throws in a dreidel, menorah or chai.

And in New Jersey, a crafts store is offering a lace wreath with a blue-and-white bow, featuring several Chanukah angels dressed in dreidel-print dresses, according to the New York Times.

Experts are attributing the blurring of religious lines to an increasingly pluralistic Jewish community.

Interfaith couples who used to focus on one holiday — or at least keep the traditions and paraphernalia separate — now test the waters by combining two sets of customs.

"The marketplace is in a sense the pulse of the culture…and we're beginning to see the cultural consequences" of so many interfaith families, said sociologist Egon Mayer, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York.

"You see it in the sale of cards and ornaments. The things people are demanding in the marketplace is in keeping with who they are."

Citing 1990 survey data, Mayer said that of the 3.2 million American households with at least one Jewish adult, roughly one-third are built on an interfaith marriage or relationship.

And whereas fewer than 10 percent of Jews married outside of the faith 30 years ago, Jews now marry outside the faith roughly 50 percent of the time.

"And I think it's even higher in the Bay Area," said Rosanne Levitt, the director of Interfaith Connection, a program of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Levitt often hears from interfaith couples who are interested in buying combination Chanukah-Christmas cards. "Just the fact that they're being produced shows that someone is meeting a need," Levitt said.

But she warns interfaith couples to consider the consequences of merging Chanukah and Christmas into a joint celebration, saying it could lead them down a pot-holed road.

Moreover, while blending the two holidays is acceptable to many Christians, she said that "to the Jewish community, to see Christmas and Chanukah combined as one celebration simply is not palatable."

Winer shuddered at the concept of a dreidel ornament hanging on a Christmas tree. He related the tale of a girl from a family that celebrated both holidays. The plan was to eventually ask her which religion she wanted to adopt as her own, but she saw it as having to choose between her father and her mother.

"The ornaments and such are symptoms of that situation," Winer said. "For the children, it's best for the parents to pick one religion that will be celebrated in the home. It's too confusing otherwise."

Crohn, whose second book, "Fighting For Your Jewish Marriage," is due out in June, said he personally doesn't have a problem with interfaith couples who have the urge to merge.

"If it works, more power to them," said Crohn, who quickly added a caveat: While combining the two holidays might work in individual cases, the odds "for the likelihood of problems" are increased when a family doesn't have a clear religious identity.

"For some marriages, it might help to do these kinds of [blending] things, but for some, doing it is really a way of avoiding facing difficult issues, and that can lead to real trouble," said Crohn. Connecting to a spiritual community, he added, is an important factor in the success of a family.

But does the mixture of Chanukah and Christmas — and the resulting products on the market — indicate a new interfaith, spiritual community might be emerging?

"There is no larger community of interfaith," he said. "It's not going to emerge, either, because it's an overwhelming Christian society. The interfaith programs you see are pretty much all done by the Jewish community."

As for who is sending the interfaith greeting cards, Okrend hypothesized that most of his MixedBlessing customers are Jewish, although he has no data.

MixedBlessing (www.mixedblessing.com) and Mishpucha et al (www.mishpucha.com) specialize in interfaith cards — the old-fashioned paper kind. MixedBlessing offers about 35 designs, and Mishpucha et al has about 50.

Some of their designs can also be sent as "virtual" cards. The most visited greeting card site on the Web (www.bluemountain.com) features some Mishpucha et al cards, while Yahoo's virtual card site (http://greetings.yahoo.com) has some MixedBlessing cards.

Local card shops carry several different brands of interfaith cards but Recycled Paper Greetings, based in Chicago, pioneered combining Chanukah and Christmas symbolism. "They had some [interfaith] cards as early as the 1970s," said Avant Card's Morris.

"I wouldn't say the industry is skyrocketing, but it's having nice growth," said Ronnie Rothman, co-owner of New York-based Patnie Papers, which created Mishpucha et al, its interfaith line of cards, 5-1/2 years ago.

"When our cards were originally conceived, it was more for interfaith couples to send. But now people are sending them as ecumenical cards, and lots of businesses are using them. They can send them out to clients and not worry about the religion of the person receiving them."

Shana Levy of Alameda, the daughter of a Jew and Catholic who used to design her own interfaith cards, recently received a box of Mixed Blessing interfaith cards as a gift.

"I am sending them out but not to everyone," she said.

"I know some interfaith couples that are very clear about having chosen one religion, usually Judaism, so I sent those people Chanukah cards. But for people who are trying to do both holidays, the interfaith cards seem appropriate."

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.