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.
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!