It’s likely we all have some grievance to air, and as the onslaught of holidays takes hold, there really is no better time. Feeling overfed, overspent and overcommitted can take its toll on the best of us, turning the jolliest elf into a temporary grinch.
But what if there was a holiday that met our need for exemption? What if we could opt out of the obligatory gatherings or the commercialization of Christmas? In case you missed it, two decades ago, such a holiday came to mainstream fruition. Festivus, born on a final-season episode of “Seinfeld” promised something for the rest of us.
In 1997, “Seinfeld” was wrapping up its storied run, but not before imparting one last gift. A December episode entitled, “The Strike” features character George Costanza’s family celebrating this alternative holiday. Like any proper tradition, Festivus features immutable tenets. The most well-known is the Airing of Grievances in which families, gathered for a festive meal, take a moment to tell one another how they’ve let each other down in the preceding year. Think of it as Thanksgiving, but with the gratitude element in reverse. Some may argue that holiday meals naturally lend themselves to such conversation anyway, but we have the Costanzas to thank for normalizing it. Whether or not your loved ones move by dessert, though, is another story.
Thankfully, if the Airing of Grievances touches a nerve, it is quickly followed by Feats of Strength. At the close of the meal, the head of the household must be pinned to the ground in a wrestling match. Physical aggression seems a next logical step in the evolution of a family gathering, so again, hats off to the Costanzas. But Festivus is more than just disgruntled expressions and arm-twisting antics. Let us not forget the traditional décor. In response to the over-tinseled glitz of contemporary Christmas, Festivus takes the minimalist route. Instead of a tree, celebrants gather around the Festivus pole, an “unadorned aluminum pole.” Simple. Classic.
But where did this eccentric idea, and its manifestation, really start? Even though it was brought into American living rooms courtesy of ‘90s sitcom “Seinfeld,” the roots of Festivus reach back a bit further. Screenwriter Dan O’Keefe has documented his father’s conception of the holiday in the 1960s. But the jump to pop culture wasn’t as simple as a writer mining his past for material. Rather it made the leap at a cocktail party wherein O’Keefe’s “loudmouth” brother started telling family stories to a room full of half-drunk writers – obviously a recipe for television gold.
Prior to “Seinfeld,” when Festivus was just a private piece of O’Keefe mythology, the holiday was a bit darker. Although Dan’s father invented it with romantic intentions, celebrating he and his wife’s wedding anniversary, he added progressively bleak elements. As Dan tells it, his father was an “undiagnosed bipolar severe alcoholic.” He was also a wildly clever man who would invent fantastical celebrations, guided by his own peculiar poetry. As the whims of his father dictated, Festivus could shift to become simply a “formalized setting for yelling” at children.
Nonetheless, what Dan describes as child abuse, in his 2005 book “The Real Festivus” and a subsequent 2021 “Daily Beast” podcast, was destined for pop culture immortality. As is the case with most traditions, whether cultural, religious or simply ridiculous, Festivus has morphed from its inception story to something else entirely. The holiday that perhaps never should have been has inspired people to add some levity back into the season.
At its best, Festivus delivers something that is often missing from this time of year. We have comfort. We have nostalgia. But the winter holidays are otherwise lacking in good old-fashioned silliness. So, regardless the roots of Festivus, if putting a metal pole in your living room makes you happy and distracts from the drama of your upcoming obligations, by all means, gather some friends, say mean things to them (but not too mean) and celebrate the Festivus “for the restivus.”
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