Matthew Norman: Let's all celebrate Festivus this year

Family members sit at the table and outline the many ways they have let each other down through the year
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The Independent Online

As founders of major religious festivals go, Frank Costanza cuts an unlikely figure. In fact the only two things he unquestionably has in common with such senior colleagues as the Jewish God and Jesus Christ, so far as I can tell, are facial hair (a warthog moustache in his case) and a hell of a temper.

As founders of major religious festivals go, Frank Costanza cuts an unlikely figure. In fact the only two things he unquestionably has in common with such senior colleagues as the Jewish God and Jesus Christ, so far as I can tell, are facial hair (a warthog moustache in his case) and a hell of a temper.

Atheists may identify a third common feature in that Frank is an entirely fictional character, being father to the gloriously amoral George in the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld.

Frank Costanza, for those of you blessed never to have seen Seinfeld and so to have the experience yet to come, is a squat, stocky, ginger-haired ball of rampant fury, and high on his almost limitless roster of hatreds is organised religion. Such is his loathing for Christmas, indeed, that early in George's childhood he invented a rival to Yuletide by the name of Festivus.

The irony here is almost too cute for words. Everything that we have come to identify as the traditional Christmas was invented by Jewish men (the Hollywood producers of the 1930s and 40s, Irving Berlin's snowy lyrics, etc) who by rights, or by rites, should have been too busy lighting the Chanukkah candles to have time for rebranding someone else's ancient winter festival.

Now it is two more Jewish men, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who have created the perfect antidote to the schmaltzy vacuity of the Christmas message and the general, unremitting yukkiness that attends it. In Festivus, "the festival for the rest of us", a zingily fragrant pine tree or a model of Baby Jesus in his crib is replaced as focal point by an aluminium pole erected in the sitting room, while Festivus traditionally concludes with the "Feats of Strength", in which Frank puts his son George in what Kent Walton used to know as the Boston Crab, until, even in early middle age, he begs for mercy and begins to sob.

Meanwhile, the keynote ritual - a very loose equivalent, perhaps, to midnight mass - is the post-Festivus dinner rite called "The Airing of the Grievances". In this, family members sit at the table and outline to each other the many and varied ways in which they have let each other down through the year. Keen religious scholars may notice here a subtle reversal on the Catholic confessional or the Jewish Yom Kippur, in which it is the wronged, rather than the penitent, who take the proactive role of listing misdemeanours.

The remarkable thing about what was clearly meant as parody is that it is starting to be taken seriously. In the past week, American newspapers have been reporting a surge in Festivus parties. All over the US - but especially in the corners where they find the growing political power of Christian fundamentalism as unnerving as we do in Europe - the poles are going up, the grievances are being aired, and the feats of strength are being endured.

There is nothing unique about something that started life as a pastiche mutating into a genuine cult. In the early Seventies, Luke Reinhart, yet another savvy American Jew, published The Dice Man, a screamingly funny, slightly sick novel about a youngish psychiatrist who yields more and more control of his tediously trouble-free life to the dice, until his personality splinters into a million parts and he goes criminally insane.

Reinhart conceived the book primarily to satirise the New Testament (there are loads of faux-biblical flourishes in the prose) and the abundant foolishness of trendy psychotherapeutic techniques.

But its core notion of formalising the inherent randomness of human existence into a religion, with the die as godhead, caught on - albeit not to the extent of the central character, who commits rape and murder in the name of the die. Many people have flirted with the dice life. I speak from experience here, a single flip of the die - a sugar cube, to be strictly accurate, with dots administered by felt tip pen - deciding, one night in 1991, that a young woman should come home with me; and then, five months later, dispatching us to Chelsea Town Hall to be wed. That's her story, anyway, and since she insists that the die can be asked to reconsider the matter at any time, I mentally prepare to pack my bags whenever we play Monopoly, Cluedo or any other dice game.

The more gravitas-laden among you may wonder whether ceding such a crucial life decision to a cube of Tate & Lyle tends towards the flippant, just as Festivus may appear a slightly juvenile two fingers to the Greatest Story Ever Told. And yet the enduring appeal of Reinhart's cult (to this day, there are Dice Centres offering therapeutic role play across the planet) and the explosion in the popularity of Festivus hint at something more than a bunch of overgrown undergrads being studiedly facetious.

It is an obvious paradox that, just at that moment in human history when genetic science is filling out the Almighty's P45 - when mankind is poised to challenge His long-held monopoly on the creation of life - the destructive power of religion is at its greatest for centuries.

It is a plain fact that, of the four major global players in recent years, only Saddam paid no more more than lip service to his faith. The other three, Messrs Bush, Blair and Bin Laden, rejoice in the facile moral certainties that go with unshakeable religious belief, which is precisely what permits them to take life in such quantities without waking up at 4am, sweating and sobbing and whimpering with self-doubt. Meanwhile, militant Sikhs in Birmingham censor theatrical freedom of speech. All in all, conventional religion doesn't look so attractive right now.

But hey, it's Christmas Eve, and no time to weigh ourselves down with ponderous reflections. Instead let us celebrate the birth of a revolutionary new belief system, and accept that what makes Festivus such a joyous alternative to its older rivals is the quality that makes the Dice Life so seductive ... its brutal honesty.

Luke Reinhart's point was that life is little more than a series of random events, and that since we delude ourselves if we think we are in control, we might as well embrace the chaos. Festivus is an instinctive recoiling from the false bonhomie and hypocritical spouting of a message of goodwill for a day - a God is for Christmas, let us remember, just not for life - when we behave like pigs for the other 364. In the typical family, we irritate and resent each other to distraction, and never more so than when cooped up together in overheated houses, with overfilled stomachs, at Christmas. The special genius of the Airing of the Grievances is its offer of instant catharsis.

So it isn't hard to see why Festivus is growing in influence in the States (the websites are sprouting, and a character in Philip Roth's The Human Stain has the near-identical idea) and even easier to predict that it will take off in godless Blighty within a couple of years. For in a world ruled by Old Testament values but beset by specious New Testament rhetoric, Frank Costanza's unspoken motto - turn the other cheek so I can land a haymaker on that one too - captures the spirit of the age in a way that the beguiling fairy story of the baby born to redeem us will never do again.

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