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Religious Tolerance logo

Holidays, observances, and conflicts at Christmas time:

Part 4 of 4

Festivus, an annual secular family celebration
in December, is "for the Rest of Us!"

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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History and rituals of Festivus:

The Roman comic poet Plautus from the 3rd century BCE originally used the term Festivus to refer to "wild celebrations attended by average citizens cutting lose on religious holidays." 2

Festivus is now a recently invented secular day of celebration for the entire family and friends. It is held annually on DEC-23 -- about half-way between the Winter Solstice and Christmas. It was apparently created in 1966-FEB by Daniel O'Keefe, of Chappaqua, NY. (b ~1928). O'Keefe, a former writer for Reader's Digest, says that the idea just popped into his head. It happened before any of this children were born, and was originally a celebration of the first date that he had with his wife Deborah. He developed it during the 1970s while he conducted researched for his book "Stolen Lightning." 6 The New York Times described it as "a work of sociology that explores the ways people used cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures." He recalled:

"In the background was Durkenheim's 'Elementary Forms of Religious Life' saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce [concluded that] religion is the worship of the beloved community."

He now wonders "Have we accidentally invented a cult?"

According to his son, Daniel, who was a writer on the TV comedy "Seinfeld," the 1966 version of  Festivus involved:

bullet A wrestling match among the children in the family.
bullet An audio recording of grievances. This is where each person present complains to friends and family about all the ways in which they have disappointed him/her during the previous year.
bullet A clock in a bag. The significance of this item has been lost to history.
bullet A yearly theme. Daniel recalls that one was "Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?" Another was "Too easily made glad?"

The proper greeting for the day is "Happy Festivus."

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Seinfeld's version of Festivus:

The third reincarnation of Festivus occurred in episode #158 of Seinfeld that was broadcast on 1997-DEC-18 called "The Strike." On the show, Frank Costanza -- played by Jerry Stiller -- said that he saw the need for a new holiday when he was in a department store near Christmas time. He engaged in a tug of war with another shopper over the last remaining doll which he wanted to purchase for one of his young children. Neither customer got the doll; it was destroyed during the battle. Costanza explained: "I realized there had to be a better way." So, he developed Festivus, a celebration for the rest of us.

Frank's son, the ever cheap George Costanza, dreamed up a scam to save money. Rather than give his co-workers Christmas gifts, he gave them all phony cards indicating he had made a donation in their name to a fictitious charity: The Human Fund.  George's boss decided to give a $20,000 donation to the charity and gives George a check. The scam is revealed when the accounting department finds that there is no such charity. George explains:

" I gave out the fake card, because, um, I don't really celebrate Christmas. I, um, I celebrate Festivus. ... And, uh, I was afraid that I would be persecuted for my beliefs. They drove my family out of Bayside, Sir!" 8

According to TV Acres:

"Calling his bluff, George's boss came home with George to see Festivus in action. The get-together was a fiasco and ended with George being pummeled by his father who wrestled him to the floor as George screamed ..." 3

The show's writers changed the wrestling competition in the traditional Festivus so that the head of the family selected a family member or friend to wrestle. According to Wikipedia: "

"A participant is allowed to decline to attempt to pin the head of the family only if they have something better to do instead."

a festvus pole The writers also added a Christmas tree-substitute made of a plain aluminum pole without decoration. Costanza found "tinsel distracting." Apparently, the simple, unadorned pole was in reaction to ornate Christmas trees with layers of expensive decorations.

As a side-plot, Kramer asked for Festivus off as a vacation day from the bagel shop where he worked. They refused to grant his request. So he went on strike, carrying the sign: "Festivus Yes! Bagels No!"

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The evolution of Festivus:

Years after the Seinfeld episode, Festivus began taking on a life of its own:

bullet In late 2000 Ben & Jerry's created a temporary special Festivus ice cream flavor.

In 2004, the New York Times  reported that:

"...from Tampa Bay, FL, to Washington, from Austin, TX., to Oxford, OH, many real people are holding parties."

Jennifer Galdes of Chicago IL, a publicist working in the restaurant industry and a veteran of three Festivus parties, said:

'More and more people are familiar with what Festivus is, and it's growing. This year many more people, when they got the invite, responded with, 'Will there be an airing of the grievances and feats of strength'? "

bullet Fubbershmore sells Festivus T-shirts in over twenty colors and in seven styles. 9
bullet A FestiForum is online. 10
bullet In 2006, TBS scheduled a mini-Seinfeld marathon during the week before Christmas which included the Festivus episode.

bullet For Festivus 2006, the Boston Globe commented:

"Festivus celebrants can now go online and purchase specialty items like wine (Grape Ranch Festivus Red, made in Oklahoma), greeting cards, and aluminum poles ... From holiday songs ("Gather 'Round the Pole," "Oh Festivus") to Festivus recipes (Ham With Junior Mint and Snapple Glaze, reprinted in Salkin's book), the trappings and trimmings associated with bona fide holidays have become readily available in a kitschy sort of way." 12

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About the Festivus pole:

Festivus is in a constant state of flux. The original Festivus was a bare-bones affair. Not even tinsel was allowed. Recent celebrants have added some new rituals and specifications to the celebration. One relates to how the pole is  mounted. The pole was shown on the Seinfeld program, but its mounting was not.

bullet Krista Soroka, 33, of Tampa Bay, FL, supported her five-foot pole in a sand-filled green plastic pot.
bullet Mike Osiecki, 27, of Atlanta, GA, suspended his pole from the ceiling of his porch with fishing line. He commented: "people can stare at it or dance around it if they want to."
bullet Aaron Roberts, 28, of Oxford, Ohio, used a post from a recycled set of metal shelves supported by a cardboard box containing weights.
bullet Jennifer Galdes mounted her six-and-a-half foot pole in a Christmas tree stand.
bullet Scott McLemee of Washington DC simplified the festival even more by not having a pole at all at his party.

Although the plain pole was created as a reaction to elaborately decorated Christmas trees, an enterprising company in Milwaukee, WI, manufactures ready to assemble Festivus poles in a six foot model and a 32" table top model. 11

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Why is Festivus catching on?

By 2004-DEC, Google reported an amazing 126,000 hits on the Internet for the word "Festivus." This grew to 1.46 million by 2006-DEC. Nobody really knows why it has become so popular. Some speculations are:

bullet Professor Anthony Aveni of Colgate University, author of "The Book of the Year: A Brief History of our Seasonal Holidays" 7 suggests that Festivus is infused with so much potential meaning that it may become a permanent part of the American holiday firmament. He notes that Halloween was once an obscure festival observed by few, that Kwanzaa was invented by an academic in the 1960s, and Hanukkah has evolved in recent years to include the exchange of gifts. He said: "Even Christmas comes out of a Pagan holiday that happened around the [winter] solstice."

bullet Festivus may be gaining acceptance by the one out of four Americans who does not identify with either Christianity Judaism, or Wicca. To them, Christmas, Hanukkah and Yule do not have a great deal of religious significance. Not being of African-American descent, Kwanzaa also lacks impact in their lives. But Festivus might appeal to those who are either not affiliated with any religion, or who are members of a faith group which does not have a celebration in late December.
bullet Others may find Festivus attracted because it is such a simple family celebration, free of the commercialization of Christmas.
bullet The New York Times suggests another option:

"... that Festivus is the perfect secular theme for an all-inclusive December gathering (even better than Chrismukkah, popularized by the television show 'The O.C.')."

bullet The Boston Globe suggests that:

"Behind its popularity, devotees say, are its absence of presents, accent on idiocy, and refreshing lack of familial psychodrama. Festivus may have its own quirky rituals, they note, but none involving theology, batteries, reindeer, political correctness, or parental guilt." 12

bullet Perhaps it appeals to people because it is so funny and nonsensical.

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(Mostly) books on Festivus available at

If you see a generic ad below, please click on your browser's refresh key.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Allen Salkin, "Fooey to the World: Festivus Is Come," New York Times, 2004-DEC-19, at:
  2. "Festivus," Wikipedia, at:
  3. "Ceremonies & Celebrations: Festivus," TV Acres, at:
  4. Happy Festivus cards can be obtained at: 
  5. You can download a "list of grievances" form, "feats of strength" challenge cards, and Festivus greeting cards from
  6. Daniel L. O'Keefe, "Stolen Lightning: The social theory of magic," Vintage, (1983) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  7. Anthony Aveni, "The Book of the Year: A brief history of our seasonal holidays," Oxford University Press, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely
  8. A script of "The Strike" is online at:
  9. "Festivus for the rest of us," Fubbershmore, at:
  10. The Festivus Forum "FestiForum" is online at:
  11. "Festivus Poles from the Wagner Companies," at:
  12. Joseph P. Kahn, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Festivus. The 'Seinfeld'-fueled, secular pseudo-holiday has grown by leaps and bounds over 9 years," Boston Globe, 2006-DEC-18, at:

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Home > Religious information > Christmas > Conflict > here

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Copyright © 2004 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2004-DEC-21: the day before Festivus eve.
Latest update: 2015-DEC-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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