What is Festivus? The Story Behind Seinfeld's Made-Up Holiday

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While it may pass unremembered by most, Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Festivus.

Celebrated Dec. 23, Festivus is a secular holiday created for a family in Mount Pleasant as an antidote to the commercialization of Christmas. It was popularized by the sitcom “Seinfeld” in 1997. 

Dan O’Keefe, then a writer for "Seinfeld," appropriated what had been his family's off-beat tradition for a “Seinfeld” episode he co-wrote.

Two decades later, he is astonished that the holiday his father, Daniel Sr., invented — and forced on him and his two older brothers throughout their youth in Mount Pleasant — has endured.

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“I was tired of Festivus from the time I was first made to celebrate it in the mid-1970s. I haven’t gotten any more or less tired of it,” O’Keefe, 49, told  The Journal News by phone from southern California, where he works on HBO’s “Veep,” after stints as writer or producer on “Seinfeld,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Married with Children,” and “Silicon Valley.”

Fans may revel in the annual "Airing of Grievances" and using an aluminum pole as a Christmas tree stand-in, but O’Keefe  dismisses Festivus, tied by “Seinfeld” to Dec. 23, as “something that brought my family together in a shared hatred.”

But there’s a strong sense of love in his rant about its traditions, including the holiday dinner of festive meatloaf on lettuce, the labeling of easily explained occurrences as “Festivus Miracles,” and the after-dinner entertainment involving a wrestling match dubbed "Feats of Strength."

O’Keefe says his father created Festivus “to celebrate the anniversary of his first date with my mom." And then it sort of metastasized, evolving into “a family holiday that didn’t have political or religious connotations, just for us.”

It’s no accident that he uses a word usually reserved for conversations about cancer in discussing the “crazy” family tradition.

“My brothers and I had an agreement not to speak of it. And I, at least, forgot it. I don’t know if I technically repressed the memory, but this thing that I celebrated for over a decade — I guess well over a decade — I just forgot about it.”

It reemerged a few years after the last family celebration, when O’Keefe was an editor and writer for “Seinfeld.”

“My loudmouth brother opens his yap about it at a party where the producers of ‘Seinfeld’ were, and they get interested,” he explains, referring to middle brother Mark, who’s also a Los Angeles-based TV and film writer. “They tell Jerry [Seinfeld]. Jerry thinks it’s funny.

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“I say I don’t think it’s funny, I think it’s actually just kind of horrifying. And also, I don’t think anyone’s gonna like it. I think it’s just too weird, it’ll turn off the audience,” he recalls.

“They disagree, and I said all right, fine. We put it on TV, and — I wouldn’t say the rest is history — the rest is a brief pop-culture footnote, but it’s a marginally interesting one, I guess.”

Festivus became the backbone of Episode 10 of the ninth and final season of “Seinfeld.” Titled “The Strike,” it aired the week before Christmas 1997.

Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza channeled O’Keefe’s dad, launching the show’s Festivus dinner with the memorable line: “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!”

While O’Keefe hoped to forget about Festivus, New Yorkers still remember. A poll released earlier this month by the Siena College Research Institute found three percent of New Yorkers said they planned to celebrate Festivus this year. 

O’Keefe finds that number incredible.

“It’s actually a huge amount when you consider the number of people living in the New York metropolitan area,” he concludes.

Photos from a 2016 Festivus Display in Greensboro

 

Festivus in the O'Keefe house

While the “Seinfeld” Festivus was an odd but amusing December holiday, it was different in the O’Keefe household.

“The reality of this day was far more bizarre and sinister” than the TV version, O’Keefe wrote in his 2005 book “The Real Festivus.” These days he tends to focus on the bizarre part.

“We never knew when Festivus was. It was a floating holiday. It appeared whenever my dad felt like it," he says. "You came home from school and there were weird things pinned to the walls, strange decorations, strange music playing, and strange things being said, and it was on.”

Dan, Mark, and eldest brother Larry — a composer and lyricist for Broadway (“Legally Blonde: The Musical“ and “Heathers: The Musical”), TV, and movies — finally reached their limit in “the year of the Hidden Festivus.”

“We told my dad we’re not doing this [expletive] crazy homage to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’/therapy anymore” in the summer of 1990," O’Keefe says, when their dad followed them around one hot day, wearing a heavy overcoat and asking them questions about their year.

“He had an old-fashioned tape recorder rigged up inside the coat” in an attempt to trick his sons into airing their grievances.

Grousing aside, O’Keefe insists that Festivus wasn’t all bad.

“There was also a celebratory aspect to it, we talked about what had gone on the previous year, good and bad … Although every year, he picked a theme. And the themes always sounded extremely bleak. In 1978, it was ‘Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?” And one was, “Too Easily Made Glad?’”

Everything about the holiday springs from the elder O’Keefe’s background: The product of a Catholic family in Jersey City, N.J., he intended to become a Jesuit priest before he was recruited into a 30-plus year career as an editor at Reader’s Digest in Chappaqua.

Allen Salkin, author of the book “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us,” notes that while Festivus is often dismissed as a fake holiday, “all of the holidays are made up.”

The elder O’Keefe understood how holidays start, and “distilled this idea of an all-purpose holiday,” Salkin says.

The younger O’Keefe says his father was “a brilliant, brilliant man,” who also happened to be “out of his [expletive] mind.”

For his part, Salkin says “it does not surprise me that Festivus endures.”

“ I have this feeling that now it’s almost like this nostalgic little bell that, as people hear it, they kind of chuckle and it makes them feel young again a little bit, like when they first watched ‘Seinfeld’.”

New City-based journalist Steven P. Marsh blogs at www.willyoumissme.com.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2018. All Rights Reserved


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