Allen Salkin brings a playful spirit to his New York Times report about how Festivus is becoming a countercultural tradition in the more ironic circles of American culture. If Festivus sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it had an unusually powerful forum for its birth: An episode of Seinfeld, broadcast in the week before Christmas in 1997.
Salkin describes the genesis of the holiday:
“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.
Chris Walton of Philocrites mentions another alternative holiday: HumanLight, which celebrates “humanity, reason and hope.” HumanLight’s website offers animated e-cards, plus these suggestions on what to include in a celebration:
• Some kind of meal — a potluck dinner is a popular choice.
• A candle-lighting ceremony.
• Short readings (e.g. excerpts from the writings of Robert Ingersoll).
• Educational entertainment for children. One recent event included a professional science demonstration for kids. Some other events featured magicians — who then revealed how their tricks were done.
• Music and song. Original HumanLight songs have been written by Sonny Meadows and Sara Brown, and are available on request. Try something from The Humanist Hymnal or the Anthology of Humanist Songs.
• Dancing: ballroom and/or contemporary.
• Video excerpts from programs such as Evolution, Cosmos, Contact or other films and television programs.
• Hand out (or sell) copies of the Affirmation of Humanism for Kids Coloring Books for children.
Host Marc Maron asks Fox some humorous questions during the call, including whether the group bans religious iconography from packages, or whether a HumanLight is in danger of creating a new holiday ritual by bringing the same sweet-potato dish to a potluck for two consecutive years.
“Do you guys ever hang around saying, Wow, isn’t life easier without God?” Maron asked.
“We like to say without superstition,” Fox said, prompting laughter from Maron and cohost Mark Riley.
Ben Mattison wrote in The Gainesville Sun earlier this month that the spirit of HumanLight has made its way to the Sunshine State. Mattison covers the crookedletter cabaret, a comical holiday fundraiser organized by performance artist Sheila Bishop and friends:
“The audience and the performers that Sheila Bishop has been bringing together for years are really quite special,” noted performer Van Choojitarom in an e-mail. “Her audiences are receptive and engaged and truly make it OK for performers to take astonishing risks.”
This year, Choojitarom plans to spoof Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with “A HumanLight Carol,” based on a little-known alternative winter holiday that celebrates secular humanism over traditional Christmas fare.
This year’s holiday crookedletter cabaret may be Bishop’s last for a while; she’s applying to graduate school in New York to attain a master’s degree in performance studies. Among her contributions this year is a somber, spoken-word piece about light, darkness, change and rebirth that centers on often-overlooked holiday ideals.
“Christmas is so big to people even if they’re cynical about consumerism,” she said. “We need something special during this time of year. We need the celebration and the brightness and the sparkle.”