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Festivus and Family Lore

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A bare aluminum pole with a stand to hold it upright.
A Festivus pole photographed by Celeste Lindell and shared on Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Some celebrants wrap Christmas lights around their Festivus pole, but a bare pole is true to the Seinfeld television Festivus.

This time of year many people celebrate Festivus, an alternative holiday that is based on a single episode of the television show Seinfeld, “The Strike,” which aired on December 18, 1997. It is most commonly celebrated on December 23 or another date in December, but it can be celebrated at other times of the year. Created holidays around television shows and movies are not unusual. People may gather to celebrate the first air date of a favorite show or movie, for example. Festivus is unusual for a number of reasons, however. It is surprisingly widespread, it is celebrated by recreating a celebration as depicted in a single situation comedy episode, and the episode in question was inspired by an actual family tradition of a writer on the Seinfeld show. So Festivus celebrants are experiencing not only a parody holiday from a television show, but also a variation on family folklore, passed on through television.

In February 1966, author Daniel O’Keefe, Sr. and his wife Deborah celebrated the first Festivus as a celebration of their first date. They had celebrated the anniversary before, but this is when it first developed into a holiday O’Keefe called Festivus. This holiday went into a hiatus when the couple had small children. The stop and restart of Festivus has given rise to different dates given as the date of the first Festivus. In his book, The Real Festivus: The True Story Behind America’s Favorite Made-up Holiday, Dan O’Keefe, the oldest son of Daniel O’Keefe Sr., describes the tradition he knew growing up in detail. He gives 1966 as the date Festivus was conceived, but he remembers the holiday as it was revitalized and expanded upon by his father in 1975. The elder Daniel O’Keefe wanted a secular holiday that centered on the family and did not involve commercialism or religion. The celebration occurred on various dates once a year between September and May (though one year there were two and once it was in August) and was often unannounced, so that for the children it was always an unexpected event. They might just come home from school and find Festivus decorations had been brought out.

Festivus celebrations began with reciting poetry, with one special Festivus poem recited every year and other poems composed for particular celebrations. Songs were sung, such as Irish songs and a song about a pig that Daniel O”Keefe composed to teach his sons some German. This was followed by a dinner, usually turkey, but also sometimes ham, lamb chops, or stew, followed by a pecan pie. The adults had champagne. The table was decorated with candles and scattered candies. One of the rules was that the celebrants could do things at the table that were usually not allowed, such as talk with their mouths full and lick their plates. Gifts were given during the dinner. Play-Doh was often provided at each place setting and each family member was expected to make something. Various amusing hats were often worn for the occasion, with each family member choosing a hat they wanted to wear. An ambiguous symbol, a clock in a bag or a clock and a bag, was a central holiday decoration. Dan O’Keefe says that his parents refused to explain why. Signs relating to the elder Daniel O’Keefe’s political interests were also prominently displayed. Each Festivus had a theme, and the holiday had a slogan, “a Festivus for the rest of us.”

Festivus celebrations were tape recorded, and the creation of the recording was an essential element of the festivities. After dinner family members would look at photographs and listen to some of the recordings of past celebrations. Then they would take turns telling the tape recorder something about their past year. These statements could include complaints about things that had upset them.

A group of adults and children on a hillside in a woods. A girl sits on a gravestone. Most of the group are African American.
Folklorist Mary Hufford, far right, interviews Daisy Ross, about her family custom of tending the family graves in the African American cemetery at Graveyard Hill, Shumate’s Branch, West Virginia. Coal River Folklife Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Photo by Terry Eiler, May 31, 1996.

Family folk traditions can be very elaborate, like the O’Keefes’ Festivus, or fairly simple. They may be a family’s unique expression of their ethnic or religious traditions, they may mark life passages and achievements of family members, or they may be part of everyday routines. Often adult family members direct the activities, but in some traditions children are  given many opportunities for creativity, and sometimes children make up traditions themselves. Folklorists are interested in the traditions that families make their own because these help to bond people together as a family.  There are many examples found in collections in the American Folklife Center’s archive and when the Center has conducted ethnographic projects, family folklore is something that the fieldworkers look for and ask about. The traditions of individual families often are part of the culture of the larger community in some way.

An example is the documentation of grave cleaning and decoration on Memorial Day by the Ross family by Mary Hufford in the Coal River Folklife Project, pictured above. The tradition came about because the historic African American cemetery where the family’s ancestors are buried was owned by a coal company at the time this documentation was done. The coal company only allowed the families access to the cemetery on Memorial Day each year. So family members who wanted to visit the graves had to develop their own traditions for using this limited time. As the picture shows, this included bringing children so that they could learn about their ancestors and participate. Daisy Ross, who is talking to Mary Hufford, was the family elder who could tell other family members something about their family members buried there.

A woman and a man with three children next to a car help children to put on Native American dress. Other cars and people can be seen in the background.
The Robinson Family Gets Ready for Evening Dance. 1983, Omaha Pow-wow, Macy, Nebraska. Detail of a photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Omaha Music, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Native American Powwows are public events that bring different Indian cultural groups together to build community in a festive setting. They are also an opportunity to educate the general public about Indian cultures. An important part of the tradition is focus on families, educating children, and connecting families to their extended family, their cultural group, and the wider world. In the photograph above, the Robinson Family is preparing for the evening dance at the 1983 Omaha Powwow. Families often make their own Native clothes, make items to give as gifts at “give away” events, and may have traditions such as a family song to be used in dances. In a previous blog on “Finding Inspiration in Traditional Crafts,” I included some examples of garments being made for young people, one Crow and the other Salish, documented in the in Montana Folklife Survey collection.

Two women sitting on a sofa. A boy stands behind the sofa with his hand on one woman's nose. The other woman looks on smiling.
D.J. Keith surprises his mother, Janet Keith, by spreading butter on her nose as a birthday surprise at their home in Floyd County, Virginia. This is a local custom. Photo by Terry Eiler. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Families usually have their own variations on widespread holidays and celebrations, such as foods that must be served, games that must be played, and decorations that must be used. For example, in the picture above Janet Keith is surprised by her son D.J., who spreads butter on her nose. This birthday prank is a local custom that became part of Keith family traditions. Since Thanksgiving is just past, you can probably think of foods that show up every year on your family table, or traditions of having participants in the feast say something about their year that they are thankful for, recite a poem, or other traditions that make the holiday your own.

Hanukkah is interesting in that the way it is celebrated in the United States has developed in recent generations as many families strove to create a holiday more focused on children, with gift-giving, greeting cards, and decorations. In a talk at the Library of Congress in 2007, author Dianne Ashton spoke on Hanukkah in the south: “Quick to the Party: Southern Jews and the Americanization of Hanukkah” (her talk is introduced at 22 minutes into the video). In 2013, Ashton  published her full research on Hanukkah in her book Hanukkah in America: A History.

A kiosk with a sign saying "Festivus in Adams Morgan" on one side and "a Festivus for the Rest of Us" on another stands on a snowy sidewalk. Notes are posted on the sides of the kiosk. People can be seen nearby.
Festivus in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In 2009 residents organized to create a Festivus kiosk where people could air grievances by posting notes on the sides. This photo of the kiosk in 2009 is by Mike McKay and was shared on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

By looking at these other family celebrations, we see that the Festivus tradition in the O’Keefe household is unusual, but part of a wider phenomenon of families making their own traditions. Using that tradition as inspiration for a television show that spread Festivus to the world is very unusual. The story can be found in Festivus The Book: A Complete Guide to the Holiday for the Rest of Us, by Mark Nelson, (2015). The eldest of the O’Keefe’s sons, Dan, became a writer on the Seinfield television show. Dan’s brother, writer Mark O’Keefe, mentioned his family tradition to one of the show’s writers and this turned into an idea for a script– although Dan initially opposed the idea. He was worried that it would be too strange for the comedy show. But he was persuaded to adapt his family tradition for a script.

In the show, the character Frank Costanza introduces the other characters to the unique Costanza family holiday that he invented and that deeply embarrasses his son George. The audience becomes aware of the tradition when George receives a Festivus card from his father. Frank also embarrasses his son with a tape from a past Festivus, playing it in front of his friends — a direct inspiration from the original tradition. A group of friends and George’s boss are invited to the Costanza Festivus dinner. There we learn about the “airing of grievances” (inspired by the tape recordings), and the “feats of strength,” in which George is supposed to wrestle his father, that are part of the custom.

The show aired in December, and the holiday in the show was set on December 23, so some of the adaptations alluded to Christmas, including the use of a bare upright pole about the size of a Christmas tree as a decoration. The character Kramer gets into the Christmas-inspired spirit by declaring ordinary events to be “Festivus miracles.”

This Festivus, the television version, entered into the culture of its viewers, giving birth to the holiday celebrated by fans around the world shaped by the event as it appeared on Seinfeld. Since the Seinfeld show’s last episode aired in 1998, the invented holiday has been remarkably persistent. The idea of a humorous alternative holiday in the winter season as a reaction against the commercialism of holidays appealed to many viewers of the show so much that they wished to have a Festivus of their own. Fans and their friends not only duplicated the celebration of Festivus, but elaborated on the idea. Many aspects of the new holiday developed as a response to the television show, including its usually being celebrated in December, its association with the Christmas season, Festivus carols, Festivus cards (preferably homemade), and dinner based on foods from various episodes of Seinfeld.

A sign in red and green on a city street. See the caption for the text.
A Happy Festivus sign with a list of events: “the raising of the Festivus pole, the airing of grievances, the feats of strength.” The location is not given. Photographed by The Master Shake Signal and shared in 2012 on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

There are many variations to the tradition today. The “Feats of Strength” is a wrestling match on Seinfeld, but has since been adapted as various kinds of competitions by celebrants. A search of the internet reveals that Festivus feats of strength may include weight lifting, head stands, running, and calisthenics that, for some, have become the most important part of the holiday. Some people feel the aluminum Festivus pole should be decorated with lights (but never tinsel, as Frank Costanza says “I find tinsel distracting” in the show). The “airing of grievances” from the show is gleefully made part of new celebrations.

For many, dinner is central to Festivus, but it is hard to know what the Festivus foods were in the Seinfeld episode. The food was never shown in close-up or described by the characters. Due to the low resolution of the video of the original broadcast and of television screens in 1997, different interpretations emerged as fans tried to look at what was served and guess what it might be for their own recreations. The main course was something reddish, usually interpreted as meatloaf on a bed of lettuce, but some have interpreted it as red sauce on spaghetti. Clearer copies of the video in HD today show slices on a bed of lettuce that look like meatloaf. Other foods served are often inspired by various episodes of Seinfeld. So bagels might be served because “The Strike” plot revolves around Kramer’s return to work in a bagel shop after a twelve-year strike. Cinnamon or chocolate babka may be served, an allusion to another episode where characters Elaine and Jerry attempt to buy a chocolate babka, but wind up with a cinnamon “lesser babka” instead. Although in his book, Dan O’Keefe said that pecan pie was the usual Festivus dessert, in interviews he has said that his mother sometimes liked to purchase an inexpensive cake and put M&Ms on top for birthdays and other celebrations. So a Festivus cake has emerged in the popular tradition as a result.

Ideally, as a tradition rooted in the idea of an intentionally non-commercial holiday, Festivus foods and decorations ought to be made by hand. For example, purists feel the items needed to create a Festivus pole should be scavenged and may vary according to the supplies found. But ironically, Festivus kits, Festivus poles, Festivus sweaters, and other merchandise can now be purchased as well.

Clearly, there have been quite a lot of variations as the original family tradition followed its unusual route into popular culture. Dan O’Keefe made changes to his family Festivus to create a comical television episode to air near Christmas, making up such parts of the celebration as the “feats of strength” for comic effect. Then fans of the show adapted what they saw on the screen to form to their own celebrations and spread the tradition by inviting people who never saw “The Strike” to their celebrations. The slogan “a Festivus for the rest of us” has survived all these changes to the tradition, though it may mean different things to different people.

Some family traditions are passed on to successive generations, and others are not. Some people follow in their parents’ footsteps, others pick and choose from the traditions of  their parents and grandparents, while still others prefer to start their own family traditions. According to Mark Nelson, in the case of Festivus, there is one person who does not celebrate it, and that is the creator of the Seinfeld episode “The Strike,” Dan O’Keefe. Yet the fictional holiday he brought to television has now traveled around the world. Have a Happy Festivus!

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