Festivus: How Seinfeld’s anti-Christmas celebration of grievance airing became a cult phenomenon

·3-min read
Festivus: How Seinfeld’s anti-Christmas celebration of grievance airing became a cult phenomenon

“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, a secular, anti-commercial 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 roast turkey, meatloaf is served on a limp bed of lettuce.

Festivus rituals include the Airing of the Grievances, in which participants take turns to scold everyone who has annoyed them 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 who sadly passed away last May, 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 eccentric father Daniel, an author best known for his book 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 O’Keefe 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 pent up grievances with gusto.

It’s even passed into common parlance in America, with news anchor Jake Tapper memorably haranguing then-president Donald Trump in 2017 for ranting about the press giving him unfavourable coverage.

“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,” Tapper complained.

And if you enter “Festivus” into Google, well, you’ll see...