Every holiday season, jokes about airing your grievances and feats of strength pop up, but unless you’ve seen a certain episode of Seinfeld, you probably have no idea what’s going on. Well, December 23rd is Festivus, the festival “for the rest of us,” and what originally started as a family in-joke has hopped from a beloved sitcom to a form of consumer rebellion. Festivus is all about family and friends. Sometimes too much about them. Here’s the short version of how Festivus came to be. You can read our complete oral history of it here.
- Festivus started as a family tradition with Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe: O’Keefe has related, over the years, that his father had little patience for the commercialism or religiousness of the traditional holidays. In part, the O’Keefe patriarch seems to have been inspired by Samuel Beckett and in part to troll his kids:
The O’Keefe Festivus had symbols and props which weren’t in the Seinfeld version of the holiday. For example, one of the main symbols of the holiday was a “clock and a bag”, and sometimes a clock “in” a bag. The significance of the bag and the clock was unknown. Apparently, when the O’Keefe siblings would ask about the meaning, Daniel O’Keefe Sr. would simply reply, ‘That’s not for you to know!’ How mysterious!
There were no costumes for Festivus, however, hats were often worn. Some of the favorites were a Viking helmet (with Play-Doh horns affixed), a brimless Cub Scout cap (including tinfoil adornments) or a pointy dunce cap. These were typical accouterments manufactured by a gang of creative youths.
And yes, Seinfeld fans, there was the airing of the grievances and feats of strength.
- O’Keefe originally didn’t want it on Seinfeld, however: It turns out that one of his brothers let the family tradition slip, and Seinfeld himself had to campaign to get O’Keefe to write it into the series. When he did, elements were changed and added, like the completely unadorned Festivus pole, to amp up the anti-consumerism tone, and it aired in the episode “The Strike” in 1997.
- Something about Festivus struck a chord: The holiday is just one aspect of the episode, but it’s one that’s stood out over the years. Seven years after it aired, O’Keefe put out a book about it and in 2012, marketing professor Ilona Mikkonen noted that Festivus had become part of the “parodic resistance” against aspects of the winter holidays:
In contrast to dominant Christmas ideology, Festivus promotes a grand narrative of “meaningful nothingness,” wherein Festivus celebration is presented a viable means of circumventing the oppressiveness of Christmas (i.e. “meaningful”) through erasing the higher goals and conventions if Christmas (i.e. “nothingness”).
Mikkonen doesn’t say outright that Festivus is intentionally a holiday about nothing, but the spirit is there. Indeed, Festivus has been a form of protest for years. An atheist protested nativity scenes on display in Florida by, successfully, going to court for the right to build a Festivus pole out of beer cans next to a nativity scene. In 2015, a gay man created a Pride Festivus pole for the same reason; he topped it with a disco ball.
That, in a nutshell, is Festivus. It’s a holiday without the holiday, but the irony is, stripping away the presents and religious belief of the winter solstice seems to really make people happy. The ultimate point of Festivus is that perhaps we don’t need an excuse to come together, or if we do, any excuse will do. Just make sure to get your donations into the Human Fund before you go.