A secular alternative to Christmas, Festivus is a December holiday "for the rest of us" made famous by a 1997 episode of "Seinfeld."
While millions around the world prepare for Christmas, thousands of loyal Seinfeld fans begin to gather around their unadorned aluminum poles and air their grievances for Festivus. But just what is Festivus, the “holiday” celebrated two days before Christmas?
Though it became famous thanks to the 1997 Festivus episode of Seinfeld, the holiday “for the rest of us” started with one real American family in 1966 — and has since turned into a bonafide cultural phenomenon.
What Is Festivus?
The world first learned of Festivus on the December 18, 1997 episode of Seinfeld. It was then that the character of Frank Costanza explained the holiday to the show’s characters — and the world at large.
“Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son,” Frank says. “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.”
Thus, he invented a new holiday — Festivus. So, what is Festivus? And when is Festivus?
According to Frank, the holiday is celebrated on Dec. 23 — to “get a leg up on Christmas” — and involves three basic components. One, there’s the Festivus pole which, unlike a Christmas tree, has no decorations. Next, there are the feats of strength — like wrestling — after dinner.
And, finally, there’s the airing of grievances. At this point, everyone can tell family members and friends how they’ve disappointed them in the past year.
The holiday was perfectly befitting of character George Costanza’s weird, dysfunctional family. And though George famously hated the holiday, the Festivus episode delighted Seinfeld fans, many of whom wondered what inspired it in the first place.
In fact, the Seinfeld Festivus episode came from the mind of one of the show’s writers, Dan O’Keefe. O’Keefe didn’t just make it up, however. He actually spent his childhood celebrating Festivus.
The Real Origins Of The Festivus Episode Of Seinfeld
Festivus seems too ridiculous to be real. But for Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe, it was just a part of growing up.
“It is a fake holiday my dad made up in the ’60s to celebrate the anniversary of his first date with my mother,” O’Keefe explained.
“It was something that we celebrated as a family in a very peculiar way through the ’70s, and then I never spoke of it again. I had actually forgotten about it because I had blotted it out of my mind.”
On Festivus, O’Keefe and his family aired grievances and tried to outdo each other in feats of strength. Though he mentioned it once to one of his fellow Seinfeld writers, O’Keefe had no intention of including it in the show.
But the other writers found it wonderfully weird — and, more importantly, so did Jerry Seinfeld.
“‘Jerry [Seinfeld] thinks this is hilarious and we want to put it in the show,” O’Keefe remembers the other writers telling him.
They convinced O’Keefe to help write the episode, which he did — throwing in “true” parts of Festivus like its tagline, “a Festival for the Rest of Us” and adding weird, new details like the Festivus pole.
“That came out of Festivus being anti-commercial, and what’s the least like a tree?” said Alec Berg, one of the writers on the episode. “A warm living thing, and just an antiseptic metal pole.”
Still, O’Keefe remarked that his family’s version of the holiday was “entirely more peculiar than on the show.” For some reason — O’Keefe can’t imagine why — his family’s version included a clock in a bag.
“It didn’t have a set date [and] in real life it could just happen whenever the f–k [my father] felt like it,” O’Keefe explained. “In one year, there were two for some reason; one year, there were none. You never knew when it was coming.”
Though the episode aired to great acclaim, no one could have predicted what would come next. The O’Keefe family’s fake holiday delighted people so much that they decided to celebrate it for themselves.
How The Holiday “For The Rest Of Us” Went From TV To Real Life
After the Seinfeld Festivus episode aired, something peculiar happened. People wanted to celebrate Festivus for themselves. They bought poles, tackled each other to the ground, and gleefully shouted their grievances.
Before long, celebrations spread from coast to coast. A New York Times story about the holiday which ran in 2004, seven years after the Seinfeld Festivus episode, recorded holiday gatherings in Florida, Washington, Texas, and other states.
People stuck poles in the ground and attended Festivus parties. One fan even built a website with holiday-themed greeting cards to air grievances, like “You’re a disappointment! Happy Festivus!”
Politicians, newspapers, and protestors have also started celebrating the holiday. Senator Rand Paul has been known to air his grievances on Twitter, the Tampa Bay Times allows reads to submit grievances for publication, and protestors in 2013 and 2014 erected a pole at a nativity scene in Florida to advocate for the separation of church and state.
The proliferation of the Festivus led O’Keefe’s father, a writer also named Daniel who died in 2012, to wonder: Have we accidentally invented a cult?”
Maybe so. But Festivus seems here to stay.
As Frank Costanza says: “Gather your family around and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year.” ‘Tis the season of Festivus!
After reading about the origins of Festivus, learn how one Seinfeld writer sought compensation when McDonald’s stole his “muffin tops” idea. Or, discover the story of Joel Rifkin, the NYC serial killer who became part of a Seinfeld plot line.