So how did a joke in an episode of a sitcom — albeit the most popular sitcom on television at the time — become a somewhat legitimate part of our global culture ?
Festivus, celebrated on December 23, is the ultimate postmodern holiday. It’s ironic not only in how it’s executed but in its very inception. It’s a sarcastic spoof of family holidays, with a bitter slant — making a joke out of how unpleasant they can often be.
In Seinfeld, Festivus is a holiday George Castanza’s father invented as an alternative to the over-commercialized Christmas. More amazing is that this story line was lifted from real life. Seinfeld writer Daniel O’Keefe’s father did exactly that. So, technically Festivus dates back to 1966. It was not until the 1997 Christmas episode of Seinfeld, though, that anyone outside of O’Keefe’s family learned of the holiday. What everyone knows and possibly follows, though, is the way the holiday was presented on Seinfeld. (O’Keefe has written a book called The Real Festivus explaining what his family really did.)
Festivus on Seinfeld has three key features:
- the Festivus pole — a plain aluminum pole. Nothing living; no “distracting” glitter. Just a pole.
- Airing of Grievances — George’s father Frank Constanza (played by the great Jerry Stiller — Ben’s father if you didn’t know) explains the Airing of Grievances: “And at the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year!” This happens at plenty of holiday gatherings anyway. Why not formalize it?
- Feats of Strength — the head of the household has a wrestling match with one person at the dinner, and Festivus is not over until the head of household is pinned. If this doesn’t come easily, the festival drags on humiliatingly.
So why did the idea of Festivus capture the public imagination? Well, we’re certainly in an ironic age. But it’s more than that. I think it’s because there’s a dirty little secret — not so secret some of the time — that there’s a lot of pain around holidays. Some people are alone; some have families that are difficult or worse. I’ve been talking about some of this. These two pieces, Home for the holidays when a parent is an alcoholic or addict and 6 tips for making it through Christmas family gatherings, look at dealing with difficult relatives. This post, Forming a More Perfect Union — Navigating political and religious differences at holiday gatherings, talks about how to keep political and religious differences at family gatherings from escalating into arguments.
Festivus, like much of the comedy in Seinfeld, is a way to laugh at our pain. By making the discomfort of family holidays outwardly absurd, we’re able to take a step back from it and embrace its real absurdity — the stupid human messiness of it all.
So, Happy Festivus! Now about that Airing of Grievances…
You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/advent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!