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A Festivus for the Rest of Us

December 24, 2016

At Christmas-time, bombarded as we are with sentimental commercial messages aimed at getting us go buy-buy-buy, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in what we tend to think of as traditions. The retail decorations and the piped-in music carols start in November. A lot of those “traditions” are not so old, they only seem that way. Santa Claus made his appearance in 1821, Scrooge and Tiny Tim in 1843, and within a few decades had become the dominant images associated with what was once a religious holiday. Even for those who live in warm places, snow seems to have become important, immortalized in the song “White Christmas” only in 1942. Charlie Brown had his first Peanuts Christmas in 1966, the same year Kwaanza came into being.

Is that all the time it takes to make a tradition? What about those of us who remain apart from the retail frenzy, or those of us whose own personal take on the solstice holiday does not involve religious imagery, or fake snow and Santa Claus suits, or artificial trees and candles. What about the rest of us?

There’s another tradition taking hold, at least as old as Kwaanza, conceived in 1966, popularized in a TV show in 1996, and now showing up in holiday displays all around the country. It’s “Festivus,” for the rest of us.

It was first observed on December 23, 1966, in the household of author and editor Daniel O’Keefe, the father of TV writer Dan O’Keefe, as an alternative holiday in response to the commercialization of Christmas.. The word Festivus in this sense was coined by the elder O’Keefe, and according to him the name “just popped into my head. The English word festive derives from Latin “festivus”, an adjective meaning “excellent, jovial, lively” which in turn derives from festus “joyous; holiday, feast day”. The phrase, “a Festivus for the rest of us” originally referred to those remaining after the death of the elder O’Keefe’s mother, Jeanette, in 1976; i.e. the “rest of us” are the living, as opposed to the dead.”

Customary practices include the traditional Festivus Dinner: meatloaf on a bed of lettuce. No alcohol is served, but quaffing from a hip flask is encouraged. Immediately following the meal comes the “Airing of Grievances, in which each person, opening with the words “I got a lotta problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it!” tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year.

The “Feats of Strength” are celebrated immediately following the Festivus dinner. The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges them to a wrestling match. Tradition states Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. Failing to pin the head of the household results in Festivus continuing until such requirement is met.

The traditional “Festivus Pole” is a bare aluminum pole, originally the trunk of a 60’s style aluminum tree shorn of all its branches. The aluminum pole was not part of the original O’Keefe family celebration, which centered on putting a clock in a bag and nailing it to a wall. “Festivus miracles” seem to consist chiefly of wagers won, and bets collected.

Since the notoriety given to Festivus by the Costanza family in the TV show Seinfeld aired in 1996, the holiday has won wider adoption nationwide.

In 2005, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle was declared “Governor Festivus”, and during the holiday season displayed a Festivus Pole in the family room of the Executive Residence in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2010, a CNN story featuring Jerry Stiller detailed the increasing popularity of the holiday, including US Representative Eric Cantor’s Festivus fundraiser, and the Christian Science Monitor reported that Festivus was a top trend on Twitter that year. In 2012, a Festivus Pole was erected on city property in Deerfield Beach, Florida, alongside religious themed holiday displays. A similar Festivus Pole was displayed next to religious displays in the Wisconsin State Capitol, along with a banner provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation advocating for the separation of government and religion. For the third year in a row in 2015, a Festivus pole has been displayed at state capitols in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Washington.

But according to Dan O’Keefe, “The real symbol of the holiday was a clock that my dad put in a bag and nailed to the wall every year…I don’t know why, I don’t know what it means, he would never tell me. He would always say, ‘That’s not for you to know.’”

But for those of us who grow weary of the hype and hoopla surrounding the Christmas holiday in the way its come to be celebrated, every year, remember this: There’s a Festivus for the Rest of Us.

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