December 19, 2004
Fooey to the World: Festivus Is Come
ATHER 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 wondered.
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 irresistibly silly.
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 to."
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 community."
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 crown."
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 happened."