December 19, 2004
By ALLEN SALKIN
"GATHER around the Festivus pole and listen to a tale about
a real holiday made fictional and then real again, a tale
that touches on philosophy, King Lear, the pool at the
Chateau Marmont hotel, a paper bag with a clock inside and,
oh yes, a television show about nothing.
The first surprise is that from Tampa Bay, Fla., to
Washington, from Austin, Tex., to Oxford, Ohio, many real
people are holding parties celebrating Festivus, a holiday
most believe was invented on an episode of "Seinfeld" first
broadcast the week before Christmas in 1997.
"More and more people are familiar with what Festivus is,
and it's growing," said Jennifer Galdes, a Chicago
restaurant publicist who organized her first Festivus party
three years ago. "This year many more people, when they got
the invite, responded with, `Will there be an airing of the
grievances and feats of strength?' "
Those two rituals - accusing others of being a
disappointment and wrestling - are traditions of Festivus
as explained on the show by the character Frank Costanza.
On that episode he tells Kramer that he invented the
holiday when his children were young and he found himself
in a department store tug of war with another Christmas
shopper over a doll. "I realized there had to be a better
way," Frank says.
So he coined the slogan "A Festivus for the rest of us" and
formulated the other rules: the holiday occurs on Dec. 23,
features a bare aluminum pole instead of a tree and does
not end until the head of the family is wrestled to the
floor and pinned.
The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O'Keefe, 76, whose
son Daniel, a writer on "Seinfeld," appropriated a family
tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O'Keefe was
stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966,
is catching on. "Have we accidentally invented a cult?" he
To postulate grandly, the rise of Festivus, a bare-bones
affair in which even tinsel is forbidden, may mean that
Americans are fed up with the commercialism of the December
holidays and are yearning for something simpler. Or it
could be that Festivus is the perfect secular theme for an
all-inclusive December gathering (even better than
Chrismukkah, popularized by the television show "The
O.C."). Or maybe, postulating smally, it's just
Interpretations of the holiday's rules differ among
Festivus fundamentalists. Take the pole. On the show Frank
Costanza says it must be aluminum and "it requires no
decoration." But he does not specify what should hold it up
nor its exact height.
Krista Soroka, 33, the host of a annual Festivus party in
Tampa Bay, sank her five-footer into a green plastic pot
filled with sand this year. "It's just an aluminum pole,"
she said, "like Frank says.'
After her party last year, she gave each of the 100 guests
a miniature: a two-inch-tall ceramic pot filled with
plaster of paris with a nail sticking out of the center.
Mike Osiecki, 26, a financial analyst in Atlanta, scheduled
his Festivus gathering for friends and colleagues for
Friday. He said his pole, which he bought for $10 at Home
Depot, is suspended by fishing line on his porch, so
"people can stare at it or dance around it if they want
Aaron Roberts, 28, a zoology graduate student in Oxford,
Ohio, unscrewed a post from a set of metal shelves and sank
it through the top of a cardboard box with weights inside.
In Chicago, Ms. Galdes anchored her six-and-a-half-footer
in a Christmas tree stand. "This year I am not having a
tree," she said.
Scott McLemee, a writer, and his wife, Rita Tehan, had no
pole at all at their party in the Dupont Circle
neighborhood in Washington. They are two of the Festivus
faithful who held their parties early in December before
friends headed home for more traditional affairs.
Both Dan O'Keefe and his son bless the variations. The
original Festivus was constantly in flux.
"It was entirely more peculiar than on the show," the
younger Mr. O'Keefe said from the set of the sitcom "Listen
Up," where he is now a writer. There was never a pole, but
there were airings of grievances into a tape recorder and
wrestling matches between Daniel and his two brothers,
among other rites.
"There was a clock in a bag," said Mr. O'Keefe, 36, adding
that he does not know what it symbolized.
"Most of the Festivi had a theme," he said. "One was, `Is
there a light at the end of the tunnel?' Another was, `Too
easily made glad?' "
His father, a former editor at Reader's Digest, said the
first Festivus took place in February 1966, before any of
his children were born, as a celebration of the anniversary
of his first date with his wife, Deborah. The word
"Festivus" just popped into his head, he said from his home
in Chappaqua, N.Y.
The holiday evolved during the 1970's, when the elder Mr.
O'Keefe began doing research for his book "Stolen
Lightning" (Vintage 1983), a work of sociology that
explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the
paranormal as a defense against social pressures.
Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings,
totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors,
slouched forth from this milieu. "In the background was
Durkheim's `Elementary Forms of Religious Life,' " Mr.
O'Keefe recalled, "saying that religion is the unconscious
projection of the group. And then the American philosopher
Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved
If Mr. O'Keefe is the real father of Festivus, Jerry
Stiller, the actor who played Frank Costanza, George
Costanza's father, is its Santa Claus.
"I'll take that mantle," Mr. Stiller said in an interview
from poolside at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where
he was awaiting the premiere of "Meet the Fockers," a new
film featuring his real son, Ben Stiller. "I'll wear my
Mr. Stiller, 77, has his own interpretation of the Festivus
rituals as portrayed on the "Seinfeld" episode, especially
the feats of strength, which end with a wrestling match
between him and George.
"It was another kind of way with dealing with something
else that was going on at the time: the rebelliousness of
the son against the father and the father trying to prove
he was still stronger than the son," he said. "It was like
King Lear." (In this case, though, the old man wins.)
Infused as Festivus is with so much potential meaning, it
is not far-fetched to imagine it as a permanent part of the
American holiday firmament, said Anthony F. Aveni, a
professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate and the
author of "The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our
Seasonal Holidays" (Oxford University Press, 2002). After
all, Halloween used to be an obscure festival observed by
few, Kwanzaa was invented by an academic in California in
the 1960's, and Hanukkah has been reinvented in modern
times to include gift-giving. "Even Christmas comes out of
a pagan holiday that happened around the solstice,"
Professor Aveni said.
The holiday does seem to be evolving.
The Festivus party
to be given in Austin on Christmas Eve eve by Katherine
Willis, an actress, and her husband is to include a
backyard game of "pitching washers."
"There's basically a hole in the ground," she said. "You
try to throw the washers in the hole, and apparently the
more you drink the better you get at it."
A Web site she has set up, www.kwillis.com/festivus.html,
provides downloads of a feats of strength challenge card, a
list of grievances form and Festivus greeting cards,
including one that reads, in a Hallmark-like typeface,
"You're a disappointment! Happy Festivus!" Another Web
site, www .crazygrrl.com, offers Festivus e-mail cards.
Ms. Soroka, in Tampa Bay, who has guests write their
grievances in a ledger so she can show it at parties all
year long, has added karaoke this year.
Some things just grow. "Last year," said Ms. Galdes of
Chicago, "there was break dancing. I don't know how that