Talking Festivus with the Seinfeld writer whose dad created the holiday
Airing of grievances.
Feats of strength.
If you hear these sayings this holiday season, don't be confused.
It's just the 20th anniversary of Festivus, the demented Christmas alternative that comes from a Seinfeld episode that aired 20 years ago this week.
Does Festivus matter?
Maybe. Let's say you don't like going big for Christmas, because Jesus isn't your homie. And you cringe at the consumerism and the waste. But you still want a festival.
In the show, George Costanza's dad Frank was right there with you. He invented Festivus because Christmas is a nightmare.
Festivus does away with the Christmas tree and the gifts and the songs. There's just an aluminum pole. And an airing of grievances. And feats of strength to prove your worth. It's ridiculous. But is a holiday about a magic kid born to a woman who never had sex that much less ludicrous?
Festivus must have something going for it. It was supposed to be a throwaway part of the story, unimportant. But it has hung on for two decades.
"To my eternal shame, Festivus is now celebrated by literally dozens of federal prisoners and insane people," Dan O'Keefe, who co-wrote the episode and is basically the prophet of Festivus, tells Rooster Magazine.
O'Keefe is underestimating. Judging from Facebook posts, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of free, sane people erecting poles in their living rooms, as far away as Australia. There are celebration kits, Festivus board games, Festivus ice cream flavor from Ben and Jerry's and endless Festivus sweaters.
Festivus is celebrated by regular, normal people like computer programmer Bryan Schlief, who put up a Festivus pole in the living room of his shared apartment at the University of Portland. Grievances were aired. "I had this annoying habit of eating bowls of cereal in my room, and leaving the bowls and spoons in there," Schlief says. His roommates aired their grievances about his spoons. "I brought the spoons back. It made me a better roommate."
On a recent evening, Dan O'Keefe is slurping Wolfgang Puck chicken noodle soup while his pug stares at him while he tells us about Festivus. Is he stoked people actually celebrate, two decades later, his holiday?
"No," O'Keefe says. "It was something that we hid because it showed that my dad was batshit insane."
Yes, Festivus is real. It was created by O'Keefe's dad, Daniel, who was an editor at Reader's Digest, who "poured too much education, mixed it with too much wine to become a lovely man, a brilliant man but completely insane." Daniel launched Festivus in 1966 for reasons O'Keefe still doesn't understand.
The O'Keefe family's Festivus wasn't much like the show. There was no metal pole; there was a clock in a bag nailed to the wall. There were no feats of strengths; only strange German opera and Irish songs played at high volume. Gifts were exchanged, but only crappy ones, like a neighbor's dirt.
The Airing of Grievances was real. O'Keefe's family spoke their disappointments into a tape recorder, which he eventually dug out and used as material for his Festivus book, "The Real Festivus."
O'Keefe originally didn't want his family holiday in Seinfeld. He told the rest of the writing staff: "I want to register my dissent that i think that this will hurt the show and that people will hate it," O'Keefe told us.
It was so deranged, it seemed to fit well in the Costanza madness. In the show, Elaine says Festivus is another reason George Costanza is a nut job.
So … did real-life Festivus mess up real-life Dan O'Keefe?
Hard to say. He's been a career a success. He wrote on Silicon Valley for four years. He wrote Erlich Bachman's immortal line: "You brought piss to a shit fight you little cunt." Now he writes for Veep, the Emmy winner for best comedy.
So, did Festivus maybe … help … him on his road in life? Did having a crazy father — a real-life nut-job Frank Costanza — do him well?
Maybe, he said — but only perversely.
"If you want to create a comedy writer, then just fuck him up almost enough to make him a serial killer, and then pull back just a smidge," O'Keefe said. "You walk around Hollywood, and you walk in a writers’ room and you ask if anyone had a good childhood and if anyone raises their hands you know those are the shitty writers."
Still, he's not passing Festivus onto his kid. "I will leave him untouched by it," O'Keefe said.
Others plan to keep doing Festivus forever. Mark Nelson is a web guy in Winnipeg who wrote "Festivus! The Book" and runs FestivusWeb and the "I Celebrate Festivus" Facebook page, with posts from dozens of people showing off their Festivus poles.
Every year, his family has a dinner with Seinfeld food: Mulligatawny soup, chips (no double dipping), pretzels that make you thirsty. "These jokes never get old for some reason," Nelson says.
"It gives my close family and siblings and I another reason to get together," he adds.
Does any of this matter? No.
"No aspect of Festivus is very important — but I do a check every once in awhile," O'Keefe said.
But maybe it is significant. Christianity is losing its oomph, and millennials are looking for a replacement. They're probably not going Buddhist or Satanist. Pop culture is a good place to look for meaning, holidays and ridiculous memes that can make these cold winter days warmer.
It's a Festivus miracle!