Had a shitty year? There’s always Festivus
At this time of year – what with all that tinsel distracting us – it’s easy to lose sight of another important celebration.
That’s right - hands up if you haven’t yet erected your aluminium pole for Festivus?
Like most tragic Gen X-ers I have a ridiculous amount of Seinfeld trivia stored in my head.
It’s perversely satisfying to find just the right episode to suit any occasion. And so it’s usually in December that I trot out my recall of the episode which introduced many of us to the tradition of Festivus: The Strike, which first aired on December 18 1997.
But that’s not where Festivus started.
In the 3rd Century BC, comic playwright, Plautus, coined the term “Festivus”. He used it to refer to, “wild celebrations attended by average citizens cutting loose on religious holidays.”
Bacchanalian and Dionysian celebrations such as this have travelled well across the ages, as a glimpse at most office Christmas parties over the past couple of weeks will confirm.
But it was Dan O’Keefe, an American writer for Reader’s Digest, who resurrected the term when he invented a holiday for his family in the ‘60s and called it Festivus. For the O’Keefe family, Festivus was celebrated at any time from May to December, often as a response to family tensions.
And the journey of Festivus into the modern era is as quirky as its origins.
Dan O’Keefe’s son, Daniel, worked as a scriptwriter for Seinfeld. Daniel’s childhood proved to be a fertile place from which to salvage material for the show.
And so it was that The Strike aired with a Festivus celebration as its focal point. In this episode George Costanza’s father, Frank, creates the holiday as a reaction against the stresses of Christmas and its commercialisation
After an altercation at a toy store Frank says, “I realised there had to be another way… a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!”
Since then families worldwide have taken on the spirit of Festivus. At various times throughout December, in accordance with Festivus tradition, people adorn their homes with a simple aluminum pole – in opposition to commercial Christmas festivities.
Other Festivus customs include the “Airing of Grievances” where members of the family tell other members how they have disappointed them throughout the year.
The climax of the celebration is heralded by the “Feats of Strength” and usually culminates with the head of the household challenging a guest to a wrestling match. When the head of the household is pinned to the floor, Festivus is officially over.
Of course there’s a more mystical side to Festivus – “The Festivus Miracle”. The Festivus Miracle appears to be any serendipitous event around the time of the holiday. You got a park right out the front of K-Mart? It’s a Festivus Miracle!
And this year Festivus was recognised by a US judge as an official religion so that a health conscious prisoner could receive special meals.
Sounds like a Festivus miracle to me.
While we can look at the somewhat eccentric rituals of Festivus with tongue in cheek, it’s not too hard to notice that at its heart are some pretty sweet values.
Is not getting together with loved ones to celebrate in our own special way really the true spirit of the season? Okay, so you may not feel up to wrestling Uncle Bob to the floor, but eating roast pork with all the trimmings in 40 degree heat is still pretty wacky.
Perhaps the true message of Festivus is about the importance of tradition and ritual and family and friends.
And if you don’t understand that, then I can only say: “You’re a disappointment. Happy Festivus!”
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