What’s The Deal With Festivus?

By | December 11th, 2013 | Issues, Magazine, Ministry of Cool, Piety

Understanding a misunderstood inclusive holiday

As the holiday season approaches, for many people getting in the spirit entails colorful lights, wrapped gifts and religious sentiment. However, for others around the world, the alternative holiday of Festivus strips the conventions of gift-giving and religion away from the festivities. In 1997, the writers of Seinfeld introduced the concept of this inclusive, anti-commercial holiday in the now-famous “Festivus” episode, and since then it has been embraced as a true holiday, celebrated each year on December 23rd by fans around the world.

The holiday’s minimalist spirit is perhaps best represented by the day’s only real decoration: a bare aluminum Festivus pole. This stark décor makes an ironic statement in contrast to December’s usual seasonal glitz and religious symbolism, which in turn makes the holiday itself more special and inclusive to observers of all backgrounds.
“It’s not just for people who are agnostic and atheist. It is not necessarily meant to replace religious celebrations,” said Mark Nelson, who operates www.festivusweb.com and celebrates Festivus with his own family every year.

Nelson’s involvement with the holiday began several years ago when his family was going through a difficult time and the hospitalization of his mother forced Christmas celebrations to be postponed. Since they were all fans of Seinfeld and wanted something light to take their minds off of things, they adopted Festivus as a stand-in holiday and have become involved in promoting the day ever since.

While Festivus celebrations vary from household to household, the Seinfeld episode itself established several basic traditions that remain among the holiday’s most widespread practices today. This holiday season, Festivus fans around the globe get ready to set up their Festivus poles, prepare for a meatloaf or spaghetti feast, and brace themselves for the “Airing of Grievances”, where family members confess the ways that they have been disappointed and annoyed by each other throughout the year. The confessions are light-hearted, in line with the Festivus sprit of silliness and sarcasm. Another popular tradition is the Feats of Strength, a wrestling match where family members must pin the head of household to the ground. Though observers tend to adapt the holiday to their own tastes, the spirit of the celebration remains the same.

Ironically, in spite of the holiday’s anti-commercialist origins, the holiday’s growing popularity has led to the creation of official Festivus poles available through some specialty retailers. The Wagner Companies, which sells Festivus poles, reports having sold about 1,000 of the stark, aluminum anti-decorations in their best year.

Tony Leto, owner of the company and the brains behind Festivus pole sales, said that while his company mainly sells aluminum handrails and guardrails, they decided to start offering Festivus poles on a whim.

“We are not going to make a lot of money off it, but we can have a lot of fun,” said Leto.

He says the customer base for Festivus poles, and thus Festivus observers, reaches across a broad spectrum. “Through our Facebook page, at one point I was able to see what the most popular Festivus city was- Oslo, Norway, then New York, and Chicago.” He says that along with selling to a lot of families, his company also sells to a lot of lawyers, doctors, and major corporate offices. Festivus poles are also popular with college students; according to Leto, Connecticut College has its very own campus-wide Festivus celebration every year.
Whether an “official” (if ironically commercial) aluminum pole or a homemade cardboard or plastic one, the Festivus pole is an essential tradition. As Nelson describes it, it’s very “anti-Christmas tree,” but a more conventional holiday spirit sometimes sneaks in in the form of lights or decorations. The spirit of the holiday seems to be in not taking its own rules too seriously.

“That’s the one thing about Festivus,” said Nelson. “You kind of do what you want. As long as you didn’t pay a lot of money for it, that’s the spirit of Festivus right there.”
Though Seinfeld’s Festivus episode first aired sixteen years ago, the real-life celebration remains relevant despite changing pop culture trends. Leto believes that though the holiday itself is lighthearted, the purpose it serves runs deeper, because Festivus gives people “the ability to have a party so that everybody can come and celebrate a relatively neutral holiday without antagonizing anybody.” The holiday is “a lot of laughs”, and Nelson says that “the number one thing people should know about Festivus is that it’s fun.”
Nelson shares a similar mindset, and while he realizes that the holiday is often misunderstood, he aims to further the true meaning of Festivus through his website.

“People have a notion that Festivus is this anti-Christian holiday but it has a lighter tone than just bashing religion,” said Nelson. “The spirit of Festivus is it is an anti-Christmas holiday, but it is meant to be a fun anti-Christmas holiday. It only means fun to us and it’s something we look forward to.”

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Rachel Konkler is a senior sociology major who no longer participates in the “Feats of Strength” because she has won too many times. Email her at rkonkle1[at]ithaca.edu

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