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Happy Festivus

By Terry Joseph
December 23, 2005

Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day are all properly established seasonal staples but the hitherto little-known Festivus, a non-denominational holiday annually celebrated on December 23, is fast gaining popularity; albeit so far only among a curious cross-section of American variety-seekers.

Originally created in 1966 by former Reader's Digest editor Daniel O'Keefe, who cites Samuel Beckett's famous play Krapp's Last Tape as his inspiration, Festivus sharply departs from the stock Christmas template of abundant peace and goodwill, offering in lieu an opportunity for unbridled airing of grievances; climaxing with a family fight in which the head of the household must be pinned to the ground to achieve closure.

Weird as it may seem to those of us who interpret the Christmas season differently, O'Keefe, responding to internal politics in his workplace, found Festivus a form of release. According to fellow-author Allen Salkin, the holiday's creator recorded a litany of personal grievances on any day between May and December each year. Eventually, the date was fixed as December 23.

O'Keefe's son, Dan, a writer for the blockbuster sitcom, Seinfeld, revived the concept as a plot device in an episode of the show entitled The Strike, which first aired on December 18, 1997. Many people, influenced or inspired by Seinfeld, now observe the holiday with varying degrees of seriousness, although most celebrants include the symbolic bare aluminum pole as their festival centrepiece, replacing the festooned Christmas tree.

Embraced as a response to the commercialisation of Christmas, the core Festivus celebration includes five major elements. Apart from the pole and airing of grievances, there is the Festivus Dinner, a menu that deliberately avoids traditional Christmas fare by banning poultry and pork, often going for a banal entrée like meatloaf. Drinking is optional.

In the Feat of Strength ritual, the head of the family tests his physical ability against a participant of the patriarch's choosing. The selected person is allowed to decline only if he (or she) has something better to do. There is also a Festivus Miracle which, by regular definition, could range from common coincidence to the spectacularly supernatural.

This might all appear to be a flight into the black hole of the bizarre but, as the celebration gains dubious integrity, two books on the subject stoutly support the concept. Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (ISBN 0446696749) by Allen Salkin was released on October 26, 2004 and The Real Festivus (ISBN 0399532293) by creator O'Keefe, was launched on November 1.

Nor are high-profile Festivus observances limited to eccentric authors. The prestigious NFL Super Bowl 2000 playoffs was dubbed "Festivus Maximus" and since that time, among the notable institutions hosting annual Festivus celebrations are Columbia University's Living-Learning Center, Drew University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Adherents are called Festuvians, there is now an official red wine produced by Grape Ranch Vineyards of Oklahoma, a beer dedicated to the event and a Festivus song. After reading an article in last December's New York Times, the Wagner Companies of Milwaukee decided to market Festivus Poles for the 2005 season and reports good business from trading in the unadorned at US$38 apiece, which may be purchased via the Internet at

The December 10 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, in a special investigative report by Marty Rosen, quotes Wagner's executive vice-president Tony Leto, describing Festivus as "an anti-holiday even Scrooge could love", saying too that "Christmas trees have all those annoying needles and branches. They smell. They require water and if neglected, they catch fire".

Stopping just short of describing the pole as proof of intelligent design, Leto said: "The Christmas tree has evolved to extremes-like the upside-down version. I think the Festivus pole is the ultimate rejection of the idea that you should pay US$500 to have a tree hanging from your ceiling. Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly (The O'Reilly Factor) sees Festivus as "a war on Christmas".

Now, I don't often agree with O'Reilly but what did Christmas ever do to anyone except, perhaps, facilitate drunkenness, profligate spending, deceit and ostentatious behaviour? And if that be its greatest crime, were we victims or enthusiastic accessories before the fact?

It is all well and good for persons so inclined to bash Christmas, denounce Santa Claus and refuse to participate in trimming the tree but to go out of your way to create anti-Christmas sentiment is nothing short of prostituting freedom of expression which, ironically, allows me to say to those who opt for this weird observance "Happy Festivus" and betimes wish the conventional majority "Merry Christmas"!

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