“Many Christmases 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 realised there had to be another way...”
And so Festivus came to pass, an anti-commercial and secular alternative to Christmas invented by the irascible Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) in a season nine episode of NBC’s all-conquering sitcom Seinfeld.
“The Strike” was first aired on 18 December 1997 and begins with George (Jason Alexander) receiving a greetings card from his father and having to explain its cryptic meaning to a delighted Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) at Monk's Diner.
Frank’s protest holiday – which has become a cult phenomenon with a life of its own outside the show – is held on 23 December every year, and replaces the traditional pine tree with an undecorated aluminium pole (“I find tinsel distracting”). Instead of turkey, meatloaf is served on a bed of lettuce.
Festivus rituals include the Airing of the Grievances, in which you scold everyone who has annoyed you in the past year, and the Feats of Strength, in which the children of the house wrestle the patriarch, a frequently traumatic experience.
Stiller, a hugely underrated comic actor, is on rare form in “The Strike” and has rarely made better use of Frank’s hair-trigger temper: “Stop crying and fight your father!”
The episode was written by Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and Dan O’Keefe and based on a real Christmas parody event created by O'Keefe’s father Daniel, an author best known for Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic (1982).
The original Festivus was inaugurated in New Jersey in 1966, the date chosen to commemorate O’Keefe’s first date with his future wife Deborah.
Festivus was celebrated much as it is presented in the show, although the O’Keefes marked the day by nailing a bag containing a mantelpiece clock to a wall, rather than erecting an aluminium pole. Asked about this mysterious custom on CNN in 2013, Dan was at a loss to explain: “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’.”
Today, Frank Costanza’s “Festivus for the rest of us” is enjoyed by Seinfeld fans who exchange everything from scaffolding poles to embroidered yarmulkes, and air their grievances with gusto.
It’s even passed into common parlance in America, with news anchor Jake Tapper last year laying into Donald Trump for berating the Fourth Estate: ”Instead of focusing on his accomplishments and offering an optimistic, positive view of what he’s doing for this country, it was an airing of grievances, it was Festivus, it was complaints about the media.”
And if you enter “Festivus” into Google, well, you’ll see...
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