The world changed on December 18, 1997. On that cold winter’s night, families near and far gathered ’round the warm glow of their television sets to watch the holiday episode of Seinfeld. In one fateful scene, the cantankerous Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) tells Kramer (Michael Richards) how the Costanza family celebrates the season:
Frank: 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 realized there had to be another way.
Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born… a Festivus for the rest of us!
Kramer: That must’ve been some kind of doll.
Frank: She was.
Festivus, explained Frank, does not revolve around materialism, but around something much more profound: familial disappointment and feats of strength (both of which were featured prominently in the episode).
But Festivus wasn’t invented by a mere TV character; it was invented by a TV writer—or rather, by his father. The story goes back to way before Seinfeld—all the way back to 1966 when Daniel O’Keefe, an editor at Reader’s Digest, celebrated the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Deborah, and named the party “Festivus.” Inspired by Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Krapp’s Last Tape (about an older man who listens to tape recordings of his younger self), O’Keefe started making his own tapes, into which he’d air his grievances about life. These tapings became incorporated into Festivus as the rest of his family joined in and recorded all their complaints, too. But that’s not all—the holiday also featured wrestling matches between O’Keefe’s three sons.
Many years later, O’Keefe’s son, also named Daniel, became a writer for Seinfeld and recounted his family’s odd holiday tradition to his fellow writers. They agreed it would make for a funny episode. Little did they know they would be creating an actual new holiday.
How to Celebrate Festivus
Every December 23, friends and family gather to celebrate the holiday. If you want to join in, you’re welcome to it, but you have to celebrate properly, or you’ll be, as Frank would call you, “weak.” So here’s how to celebrate Festivus:
1. Get an Aluminum Pole
Festivus’s only decoration, the stark, unadorned pole symbolizes resistance to the commercialization of the holidays. No tinsel is allowed: Frank says it’s distracting.
2. Air Your Grievances
During the Festivus dinner, celebrants go around the table and tell friends and family how much they’ve disappointed them over the past year.
3. Demonstrate Feats of Strength
The head of the family must be wrestled to the ground in order for Festivus to end. He or she chooses an opponent (the weaker, the better); and the two wrestle until one is defeated, or they find something better to do, or they get tired, or the police show up.
But the most special part of Festivus is the “Festivus miracle.” As miracles go, it’s only slightly better than no miracle at all, but that’s what makes the Festivus miracle so special: It can happen to anyone. All you need is to have something happen to you that doesn’t totally suck, and you can declare it a Festivus miracle. Say you find 35 cents in your pocket when you were only expecting to find a quarter. That’s a Festivus miracle! Or your shoes stay tied all day. Now that’s a Festivus miracle!
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