“It’s a stupid holiday my father invented. It doesn’t exist.”
I’ve spent the week thinking about the strange place tradition comes from. Mostly because of the fairly new holiday known as Festivus, which Wikipedia says is “a secular holiday celebrated on December 23 which serves as an alternative to participating in the pressures and commercialism of the Christmas holiday season.”
Festivus was a plot device used in Seinfeld that has become a nationally recognized holiday. In fact, I got two “Happy Festivus” texts this year. Must be getting popular.
But Festivus was just a giggling thought floating around in the back of my head on Christmas morning, when my wife exposed me to one of her family traditions: Christmas cake. It’s basically just a cake, but you’re allowed to eat it for breakfast. I think we made it through at least three quarters of the damn thing over the day. Compounded with the mountain of candy I’d been steadily devouring since I’d woken up, the massive stores of sugar finally had their way with me sometime in the late afternoon, as I stared at the computer screen, trying desperately to work up the effort it takes to finish writing another one of these wonderful pieces.
I was six hundred words into a trotting study of the Juggalos’ recent declaration of war against the Illuminati.
I’d known about the Juggalos for a little while. Fans of the rap outfit, Insane Clown Posse (or “ICP” to those in the know), they were known for wearing fishnets and clown makeup, drinking Faygo by the gallon, and throwing their dictionaries out of the holes in their tents that served as windows.
What I didn’t know was that ICP have apparently been developing some kind of quasi-Christian, carnival-themed religion over the past twenty years, and at least some conspiracy nuts are absolutely sure that we are watching the first movements of a cult (most likely backed by the New World Order).
I was just about to begin breaking down the cosmology of their home-grown religion, when the looming specter of sugar withdrawal quietly curled around my shoulders, waiting to rip my eyes out of the back of my head.
If you’ve never been in the depths of a real, balls-to-the-wall sugar overload, there may be some aspects of the trip you are unaware of. Things like upset tummies, headaches, and a general sense of unease are to be expected, but what may come as a surprise to the amateur, other than the snot shits and the shivering sweats, is the heavy self-analysis one arrives at when the sugar runs out. Like an acid peak, only meaner.
This moment of terrible clarity hunkered down on me as I reread the last paragraph written on my screen and considered throwing the whole thing on the trash pile. Some traditions aren’t worth inventing, and surely the Juggalo cult was one of these.
Festivus was introduced to the world in the classic 1997 Seinfeld episode, “The Strike,” as the creation of Frank Costanza, a character in the series played by Jerry Stiller. But the real Festivus was actually an invention by Daniel O’Keefe, editor of Reader’s Digest and father of Seinfeld writer, Dan O’Keefe. In 1966, Daniel was fed up with the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas, and decided to develop an alternative which would become an O’Keefe family tradition.
Traditional Festivus observances include the symbolic Clock-in-a-Bag (which Dan has never been able to explain), listening to Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” wearing bizarre hats, and prominently displaying the American flag on the front lawn. “Gifts” are exchanged (the “gift” being a wrapped object stolen from the receiver). Children are also allowed to talk with their mouths full. And swear.
Seinfeld would later add a new element, the Festivus Pole, an aluminum pole that replaces the Christmas tree, and must remain unadorned. It would also establish the date of observance as December 23, differing from what Dan calls a “floating holiday” which could sneak up on you anytime between December and May. But surprisingly, some of the more peculiar traditions featured in the episode were actually practiced by the O’Keefe family.
The “Airing of Grievances” is one, where family members sit around the dinner table, taking turns telling each other how annoying they’ve been over the past year.
Another is the Oedipal “Feats of Strength” (or FOS), where one of the children is chosen to wrestle with the head of the household. Festivus isn’t officially over until they’ve been pinned.
Unsurprisingly, Dan fought against his fellow writers when they suggested using the holiday for an episode. Embarrassing and uncomfortable family traditions are best left out of public discourse. But thankfully, no one listened, and the episode quickly became a fan favorite.
The holiday, itself, gained so much popularity that in 2005, the Wagner Company began manufacturing Festivus poles. Other companies have attempted to cash in on the new tradition, such as the release of Ben & Jerry’s “Festivus- A Holiday for the Rest of Us” flavor of ice cream, and the numerous Festivus greeting cards that can be found on the internet.
Dan O’Keefe also released a book in 2005, The Real Festivus, describing the tradition from the inside. Another book, Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, by Allen Salkin, was also released, exploring the ways the holiday has evolved over the past fifteen years.
And this year, the celebration finally broke free into the general mainstream with a Fox News segment full to the brim with screeching commentators who were outraged over the display of a Festivus pole, constructed from beer cans, in the vicinity of a Nativity scene in Florida. They seemed to feel that Christmas was under attack. Again.
In a Mother Jones article on the controversy, Dan O’Keefe is quoted as saying, “I’m looking at a Christmas tree right now, and no pole made of beer cans is going to come into my house and knock it down, at least that I’m aware of.”
My favorite debate to come out of all this has been over whether Festivus is a “real” holiday, or not. Apparently, traditions are only “real” if they were invented over a thousand years ago, meaning Christmas was probably fake for at least eight hundred years.
And I would like to point out the obvious: that Christmas isn’t very “real” anymore, either. Santa Claus and Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, and I won’t even get into the cultural looting of the Pagan Yule or the Roman Saturnalia.
Then again, maybe Christmas is under attack by this new holiday. Maybe we’re all a little sick of the commodification of family traditions, and the only reasonable answer is a bare aluminum pole and some good, old-fashioned rough-housing.
I will leave you with this to chew on: Frank Costanza’s monologue from “The Strike,” explaining the origin of the tradition. Just something to think about while you maul your fellow shoppers next Black Friday.
“Many Christmas ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way… Out of that, a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us.”