originally published December 23, 2012
I spent the greater part of today wading through gape-mouthed lemmings and waiting semi-patiently in irrationally slow lines to buy a $7 candle that smells more like bug spray than the candy canes depicted on its exterior. I stood there hoping I could remember where amid the blizzard outside I’d parked in the sprawling asphalt maze that surrounds the largest shopping mall in the world (***1985 statistic). I began to think… there has to be a better way.
I was raised a Jew, inasmuch as I was taught how to properly discern a quality blintz from an amateur effort. My mom had converted before I was born, so every December we’d make the voyage to her family’s annual gatherings to celebrate in a semi-traditional (heavy on the gifts, very light on the Jesus stuff) Christmas. Chanukah was great for lighting pretty candles, but as a kid, Christmas was where the action was at.
Now that I have a family of my own, I make every effort to educate my children in the ways of my own chosen religion (Jediism), while making sure they have the appropriate exposure to both ceremonies of my youth. But these traditional rituals are flawed, and the dominant one, the one that had me dragging shopping bags full of wind-up doodads and sequin-spackled whatsits all over half my area code on the Saturday before the 25th, that one is just too chock full o’ stress.
So what’s left? I can’t celebrate Ramadan because I’m not Muslim, and besides, that holiday keeps slipping further and further away from the winter holiday break. I can’t celebrate Kwanzaa because I have no idea what it’s about, and I have a feeling that trying to celebrate it anyway would be somehow racist. Then, on cue, Ms. Wiki regifted me with the perfect answer:
Though it is mainly known as the subject matter from a classic Seinfeld episode, Festivus is a real thing. Well, it’s a real thing in that people will repeat its traditions, most likely because they want to be done with the obligations that accompany Christmas and also they’re probably hipster doofuses who are celebrating it ironically. But the history of Festivus goes back further than the sitcom.
In 1966, writer Dan O’Keefe wanted to create a holiday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his first date with Deborah, who would later become his wife. This is a great (and inexpensive!) romantic gesture, guys.
O’Keefe continued to celebrate the occasion every year, though it took on new dimensions and new meanings in the 1970’s. Once an editor for Reader’s Digest, O’Keefe was then working on a book about astrology, cults and paranormal phenomena. He began to incorporate a number of appropriately bizarre totems and rituals. There was no set date for Festivus – it was to occur anytime between December and May, generally as a response to some family tension. Modern adherents have set its official date as today, December 23.
Perhaps the most memorable symbol of the holiday for those of us who watched that Seinfeld episode back in 1997 is the Festivus pole.
The pole was never a part of the original O’Keefe ritual. I see the plain aluminum pole as the perfect anti-Christmas tree, though in all honesty the Christmas tree, with its lights and dangling curios (we have both an Airplane! airplane and a Yellow Submarine) is probably one of the greatest parts of actual Christmas. But since the explosion of Festivus popularity in the last 15 years, the pole has become an essential.
Dan O’Keefe’s son, Daniel, recalls other odd totemic customs being a part of his father’s celebration, including a clock in a bag. He has no idea what that represented, but it was there. The airing of grievances was a standard segment of the Festivus festivities, as were the infamous feats of strength.
Daniel O’Keefe grew up sharing not only his father’s name but also his career. In the 90’s he found himself working on the Seinfeld team, and he brought the idea of Festivus forward for an episode. George Costanza’s dad, played with immaculate comedic brilliance by Jerry Stiller, was the perfect character to push Festivus into the show’s universe.
Stiller, along with O’Keefe and son, was amazed that the holiday actually became a cult hit, and a real event for hundreds (maybe thousands but I don’t want to go too crazy here) around the world. Me… I’m not so surprised.
Christmas today may be exactly how it was when I was a kid – I don’t know, I was a kid. Christmas was about getting stuff and seeing extended family and trying to sweet-talk as many rum-and-cokes as I could from my uncles (thanks to both of you – you know who you are). I didn’t have to buy anything for anybody; if I did, I didn’t actually have to earn the money for it.
As a grown up, maybe it just seems like Christmas is more commercialized and economically-driven than it has ever been. But a lot of people I know feel the same way. Festivus is a fun, stress-free alternative. Okay, I suppose there’s the stress of being in the proper shape for when it’s time to wrestle the head of the household to the floor so that he/she can be pinned and the holiday can end, but that’s about all. Alright, some of the grievances might hurt a few feelings. So what?
As Festivus actually takes place today, that doesn’t give you a lot of time to prepare. Luckily, for a traditional ceremony, you won’t need much:
- Go to Home Depot and get an aluminum pole, anywhere between 4 and 10 feet in length. Figure out a way to stand it up (some use a bucket filled with sand).
- The O’Keefe tradition involves a turkey or ham, then a Pepperidge Farm cake decorated in M&M’s. Oreo crumbs will not do, dammit. Honor the tradition!
- Once dinner is served, everyone (beginning with the head of the household) takes a moment to express how much everyone else has disappointed them over the past year. This is the ‘Airing of Grievances’.
- Lastly come the ‘Feats of Strength’, in which the head of the household challenges someone to a wrestling match. You’ve bought no gifts, endured no shopping crowds, and probably experienced some good, cathartic moments with your loved ones – hopefully with minimal physical injury. Happy Festivus!
Maybe this is the ideal holiday to finally sever the season’s important religious significance from the commercial monster that has latched itself onto it. Maybe, as Dan O’Keefe proclaimed to his family years before the word had bled into the cultural lexicon, this is “A Festivus for the rest of us.”