Festivus … for the rest of us

‘Holiday’ popularized by ‘Seinfeld’ enjoys lighthearted following

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 
photoPopularized by “Seinfeld,” Festivus is an alternative, secular, noncommercial holiday consisting of airing of grievances and feats of strengths. The centerpiece, rather than a Christmas tree, is a stark aluminum pole. The Wagner Cos. in Milwaukee, Wis., actually sells Festivus poles. Since 2005, it has sold about 5,000 of them.

()

Each year on or around Dec. 23, Battle Ground resident Nick Grier and his family greet each other with an unusual salutation it takes “Seinfeld” lovers to appreciate: “Happy Festivus!”

The Griers don’t go all out with a Festivus pole or air their grievances, two hallmarks of the holiday as observed by the “Seinfeld” character Frank Costanza. They do, however, celebrate it in a joking way, sometimes even with arm-wrestling to fulfill the feats-of-strength requirement.

On the Web

• For a complete guide to all things Festivus, go to: http://www.festivusweb.com

• To purchase a Festivus pole or download a free form to be used during an airing of grievances, go to: http://www.festivuspoles.com

• For more information about Allen Salkin’s book “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us,” go to: http://www.festivusbook.com

Festivus — a made-up holiday, celebrated in jest — is most associated with a December 1997 “Seinfeld” episode called “The Strike,” but its roots go back decades further. According to a 2004 New York Times article by Allen Salkin, who went on to write the book “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us,” Festivus was actually created by the father of “Seinfeld” writer Dan O’Keefe in the 1960s. O’Keefe worked a modified version of his family’s tradition into the show, and created a cultural phenomenon.

For his book, Salkin tracked down Festivus celebrants across the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe. He even learned of three cats named after the holiday, one of which gave birth to a kitten, Microfestivus.

“I think what’s so appealing about Festivus for people is that because it means nothing, it can mean anything,” said the Manhattan-based Salkin, now a freelance writer working on a new book about food television.

In “The Strike,” which aired in “Seinfeld’s” ninth season, viewers learn that Frank invented Festivus back when his son, George, was a young boy. Frank got into a skirmish with another shopper over a doll and became disillusioned with Christmas.

“But out of that, a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us,” Frank says.

Festivus is to be celebrated on Dec. 23. Frank goes on to reveal that, rather than a Christmas tree, the iconic image of Festivus is a stark aluminum pole. Other holiday staples include gathering one’s family members around the dinner table to recount all the ways they’ve been a disappointment (known as the “airing of grievances”) and pinning the head of the household in a wrestling match (the “feats of strength”).

Also during this episode, Kramer ends his longtime H&H Bagels strike, Jerry dates a woman who only looks good in certain lights, Elaine goes on a mad quest for a free Atomic Sub sandwich and George invents a fake charity, The Human Fund, to get out of giving his co-workers actual presents. Festivus, though, is what most people remember about “The Strike.”

“I always thought Festivus was kind of the ideal imaginary holiday,” said 25-year-old Grier, who does facilities maintenance for the city of Battle Ground and owns and operates Nick Grier Photography. “It’s something anyone can celebrate.”

Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, Festivus doesn’t have any religious or cultural affiliations, making it a very inclusive, politically correct holiday, according to Tony Leto, executive vice president of sales and marketing for The Wagner Cos., which has ventured into the Festivus poles business.

Based in Milwaukee, Wis., The Wagner Cos. manufactures architectural metal railing systems, which require a lot of aluminum pipe. When Leto read Salkin’s Festivus article, he saw a way for The Wagner Cos. to get in on the fun and attract publicity.

The Wagner Cos. started offering Festivus poles in 2005, and have since sold about 5,000.

“What we thought was a year or two phenomenon has become a five-year fun fest,” Leto said.

The Wagner Cos. offers a 6-foot Festivus pole and base for $39, as well as a 2-foot-8-inch version for $31, through the website http://www.festivuspoles.com. It also has “Festivus in a Box” kits for $22.95 that include an 8-inch pole, Salkin’s book, Human Fund donation cards and an airing-of-grievances form.

Festivus may be a way to avoid alienating people during the holidays, due to its secular nature, but it’s also just a lark, Leto said.

“I think there’s just a tremendous sense of humor to it,” he said.

That’s what Canadian Web designer Mark Nelson thinks too, which is why he decided to create an online Festivus guide. Nelson, a Winnipeg resident, launched the site http://www.festivusweb.com three years ago. It features quotes from “The Strike,” a history of the holiday and party ideas.

This is the fourth year that Nelson and his family have celebrated Festivus. They also celebrate Christmas, but enjoy their alternative bonus holiday.

“There can be a lot of pressure around Christmas,” he said. “With Festivus, there’s no pressure. It’s usually just a party.”

At their Festivus gathering, Nelson and family do a potluck featuring foods that appear on “Seinfeld” (think big salads, paella and mulligatawny soup). They each bring an item to regift (though it was in a different “Seinfeld” episode, “The Label Maker,” that regifting came up). Sometimes they play the “Seinfeld” version of the Scene It? DVD trivia game.

“We’re all too good at it because we’ve seen all the episodes so many times,” he said.

This year, Nelson introduced a new tradition, encouraging everyone to dress as a “Seinfeld” character. His family does not have a Festivus pole, however, and feats of strength were done away with in the interest of safety. To avoiding hurting anyone’s feelings, they keep the airing of grievances lighthearted and vague.

“We usually just look at each other and say, ‘I’ve got a lot of problems with you people,’” Nelson said.

They always celebrate Festivus on a Saturday, and typically between a dozen and 20 family members come. This year’s party was planned for Dec. 18.

“It’s usually just a big, goofy time,” Nelson said. “We look forward to it every year.”

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.