When HOORAY!'s editor got in touch asking if I wanted to write a piece about Festivus a great dream of mine was realised.
Among the many cultural treasures bestowed upon us by television’s Seinfeld – the Elaine dance, the thirst-inducing pretzels, the mere idea that a grown man could be obsessed with Superman long before ‘kidults’ could be conceived of as a consumer demographic – the most celebratory and ritualistic is that of Festivus.
For readers who have had the misfortune of missing this particular episode (or the entire period of history where Seinfeld summarised the socially peculiar situations of the age), Festivus is a secular holiday usually celebrated on the 23rd of December, offering an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas. It was originally invented by the family of one of Seinfeld’s scriptwriters, and subsequently launched into the popular consciousness.
There are four major components of Festivus; the pole, the dinner, Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength. In addition there are Festivus miracles, but these are not required to celebrate Festivus. They are simply the fruits of the season.
The Festivus Pole
The antithesis of a Christmas tree; an unadorned aluminium pole captures the true spirit of Festivus. If you are interested in procuring one there are plenty of places on the internet that specialise in Festivus poles, but a tradition dictates that the pole is acquired from a crawlspace, or at least the cheapest means possible. Items which make excellent Festivus poles include: mop handles, curtain rods and extension poles used for removing cobwebs. If you’re prone to a modern twist, try a wooden broom handle, a cardboard post tube or the mysterious not-structurally-important piece of wood left over from the last time you assembled your own furniture.
Remember: There are no decorations; tinsel is distracting.
The Festivus Dinner
Scholars of the celebration are divided as to what is served at Festivus dinner. There is no reference to the food in the original episode, but blurry screenshots of the dinner have narrowed it down to meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs or “something else.” Try a selection of all three to cover your bases. Alternatively, order a few pizzas instead because Festivus is about the company you keep. And that leads us to…
The Airing of Grievances
“Welcome, newcomers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you're gonna hear about it!” cries Frank Costanza immediately after the food is served at dinner. Here is the space to list all the ways in which your dining companions have disappointed you in the last year. Tensions will be high and so is the risk of physical injury. Take it from Ken Karpel, a Sydney-based director, who in 2010 held his first Festivus and gathered his friends around “a stripper pole we found in an alleyway” and managed to hurt his neck (see: The Feats of Strength).
“That first year a friend got someone angry and tried to set my other friend's bike on fire afterwards after the Airing of the Grievances. It's all little things that become bigger things when you start drinking. I can't specifically remember, but it was housemate stuff like, ‘You don't take out the rubbish,’ ‘No, I take out the rubbish!’; ‘You haven't moved your bike’ and going to set a bike on fire,” relates Karpel. “As you go around the circle people begin saying harsher and harsher things. So it might start out like 'You never wash the dishes' and it ends with 'I hate you as a human being.'”
Still Karpel has persevered with Festivus for the last few years.
The Feats of Strength
The final rite in the passage of Festivus, here the head of the household selescts one person in attendance and challenges them to a wrestling match. Festivus ain’t over until the head of the household has been pinned down to the floor. Here Karpel notes that his subsequent celebrations had more restrictions; “The second year we instituted a policy by which you do all your Grievances and then say one nice thing about the person to try and alleviate the fights afterwards.”
The Festivus Miracle
In the inaugural (and only) Festivus episode of Seinfeld there are two distinct Festivus miracles: Kramer leads Jerry’s girlfriend to believe he is cheating on her (he’s not); and Kramer invites two men he happens to meet to Festivus dinner after Elaine had given them the wrong number (deliberately). Traditionally it seems to describe a coincidence, but in modern parlance a Festivus miracle is used to describe almost any ordinary event. For instance: Did you manage to wear matching socks? It’s a Festivus miracle! Do you need some salt on your meal, and there’s salt at the table? It’s a Festivus miracle! And so on and so forth.
Karpel’s best tip? "Have everyone on board for the Airing of the Grievances. If you have people who don't really want to be a part of it and then hear something about themselves they don’t like, they're not going to be very happy.”
“And the other thing, I think there should be a no fire policy. Just keep all dangerous instruments away. Use paper cups and plastic knives." Like a seasoned pro, Karpel also keeps a tally of his Grievances throughout the year so that he has a comprehensive list by the time the festivities begin.
It’s testament to the idea that Festivus is not merely a frivolous holiday. It’s one of spirit, truth and stamina; where your relationships go to be broken and potentially never repaired. Where your nose may also be broken in the process. But it’s a celebration which does not discriminate between ethnicity, religion or consumer prowess, it is — in the immortal words of Frank Costanza — a Festivus for the rest of us.