10 Things You Never Knew About Festivus

Some fun facts for the rest of us about this not-so-made up holiday.

Certain TV shows go beyond being entertaining; they become ingrained in our culture. Seinfeld—the hit 1990s NBC “show about nothing”— is the perfect example, providing us with plenty of memorable quotes (“No soup for you!”), new words and expressions (“Yada, yada, yada,” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” among many, many others), and even a holiday. That holiday is Festivus, and since we first learned about it on December 18, 1997, it has taken on a life of its own.

In the episode, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards) learn that George’s (Jason Alexander) family has been celebrating Festivus each December 23rd for years—ever since George’s father Frank (Jerry Stiller) decided he was finished with the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas. Instead of a Christmas tree, they would decorate with an aluminum pole. During the Costanza’s Festivus dinner, they would take turns telling listing all the ways they have disappointed each other over the past year—otherwise known as the “airing of grievances.” This would be followed by feats of strength, when Frank proclaimed that until George pinned him, Festivus would not be over.

Now, nearly 22 years since Festivus was unleashed on the world, it continues to be celebrated by some. To prepare for this year’s holiday, here are ten things you never knew about Festivus.

Festivus was invented by a former Reader’s Digest editor

Long before Seinfeld, Festivus was invented by a man by the name of Daniel O’Keefe—a scholarly writer whose work included the 1982 book Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. He was also an editor at Reader’s Digest, according to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. His son, Dan O’Keefe, also became a writer, but focused more on television, including a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Strike”—otherwise known as the one that introduced the world to Festivus.

Festivus originated as a first-date anniversary

As Dan O’Keefe told Armstrong while she was researching Seinfeldia, Festivus was originally meant to be an alternative to other holidays that were over-commercialized or just “some dead guy’s birthday.” In fact, it began as a celebration of O’Keefe’s parents’ first date. Each year, the family would gather to look at old photos and reminisce about the passing time, centered on an annual theme. The 1976 theme was “Are We Scared? Yes!,” while 1977’s theme was: “Are We Depressed? Yes!”

The airing of grievances was inspired by a Samuel Beckett play

Festivus is a lot more high-brow than you probably thought it was. In fact, O’Keefe told Armstrong that the holiday was built around a yearly airing of grievances—inspired by Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, a copy of which Mr. O’Keefe had lent Mrs. O’Keefe on their first date.

Yes, the name has a Latin root

Part of what makes Festivus seem so established is the name. It sounds like something that’s been around since ancient times, and there’s a good reason for that: it does have a Latin derivation. According to Armstrong in Seinfeldia, the name Festivus comes from the Latin word “festum,” which means “feast.” Want to learn more about this dead language? Here are 18 Latin phrases that will make you sound smarter.

The pole wasn’t part of the original Festivus celebration

One of the most iconic parts of the version of Festivus seen on Seinfeld is the ceremonial pole, which the Costanza family proudly displays in their home. But there was no pole in the O’Keefe household, Armstrong wrote. There was, however, a handwritten sign that read “F*ck Fascism” — later changed to “Screw Fascism” at Mrs. O’Keefe’s request. The other important decorations included a clock and a bag—the meaning of which was never revealed to Dan and the other O’Keefe children. Looking to start your own holiday too? Here are 15 warm, fuzzy holiday traditions you’ll want to start this year.

The Festivus scene only lasted three minutes

Although Festivus is one of the most enduring parts of a legendary sitcom, the scene where the Costanza family celebrates the holiday lasts just three minutes. However, as Armstrong revealed in Seinfeldia, this seemingly short portion of the episode took six hours to film because Stiller (who played Frank Costanza) had the bulk of the lines, and had trouble remembering them.

There are several real-life Festivus foods

Festivus may be made-up, but there are some very real foods inspired by the holiday. For example, in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s debuted a limited-edition flavor called “Festivus: A Flavor for the Rest of Us” which consisted of brown sugar cinnamon ice cream with gingerbread cookie chunks and a ginger caramel swirl. In addition, a Pennsylvania brewery released a special-edition beer called Festivus, which is brewed with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.

You can buy your own Festivus pole

If you’ve dreamt of hosting your own Festivus celebration but have held off because you didn’t have an aluminum pole, you’re in luck: you can buy one online. Options range from this nine-inch mini pole (that comes complete with five Human Fund donation cards), to a 72-inch tall boy from Wagner Collaborative Metal Works. There are also instructions available so you can make your own.

It was the theme of a political fundraiser

Back in 2010 and 2011, former Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia held Festivus-themed fundraisers. In fact, the 2011 invitation welcomed people to come and air their grievances. This happened but didn’t necessarily go according to Cantor’s plan; several protesters turned up and began heckling him and other GOP donors. In case you encounter your own social challenges during the season, here are polite responses to 16 of your most awkward holiday encounters.

Festivus has been used to make political statements

At times, Festivus has been co-opted for people’s own political and religious statements. For example, in 2013 an atheist activist erected a six-foot Festivus pole made from empty beer cans in the Florida statehouse rotunda to protest the privately funded nativity scene at the capitol, NPR reported. Another Festivus pole stood in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol that same year. Fox News caught wind of this and launched a “War on Festivus” as a counterpart to its nine-year campaign to convince Americans that there was a “War on Christmas” going on, Armstrong explained in Seinfeldia. Read on to learn the stories behind more Christmas traditions.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist and bioethicist from New York City covering knowledge, culture, politics, history and lesser-known facts about holidays and traditions. In addition to Reader's Digest, she writes for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Architectural Digest, the Atlantic, Bloomberg CityLab, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Teen Vogue, the History Channel, Real Simple and Lifehacker.