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A Guest Post for the Rest of Us

Posted in Guest Bloggers

—Nancy Friedman, Chief Wordworker at Wordworking; and author of Fritinancy

Like you, I’m counting the days. Unlike you, perhaps, my countdown ends Thursday, with Festivus, the holiday “for the rest of us” popularized by Seinfeld more than a decade ago and kept alive through endless syndication—and through some impressive efforts on the marketing and legal fronts.

You’ve never heard of Festivus? Gather ’round while I recount the legend.

The Seinfeld character Frank Costanza, father of George, claimed in a December 1997 episode (“The Strike”) to have invented the holiday after finding himself in a department-store tug-of-war with another Christmas shopper over a doll. “I realized there had to be a better way,” Frank said solemnly. The Costanza Festivus came with a slogan (“A Festivus for the Rest of Us”) and a set of rules: It’s celebrated on December 23, its main symbol is a bare aluminum pole (tinsel, said Frank, would be “distracting”), and its principal rituals are the Feats of Strength and the Airing of Grievances.

In fact, Festivus predates Seinfeld by three decades. According toa 2004 New York Timesstory, it was invented in 1966 by Dan O’Keefe, a Reader’s Digest editor living in Chappaqua, New York, as a celebration of his first date with his wife. No aluminum pole was involved. The word “Festivus” “just popped into his head,” the Times reported—although surely it was inspired by “festival” and the rules of Latin noun-formation. Festivus became a family holiday after the births of the O’Keefe children, one of whom, Daniel, grew up to become a writer for Seinfeld, where he turned his family’s quirky tradition into a pop-culture meme.

Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, but Festivus has enjoyed a surprisingly robust afterlife. In 2000, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s introduced a limited-edition Festivus flavor: brown-sugar ice cream with gingerbread cookies and a ginger-caramel swirl. After it was discontinued, fans protested until the company brought it back in 2004. (The flavor was finally retired in 2006, but you can request its return.) For a while, at least, you could pair that ice cream with Festivus wine, a celebratory quaff produced by Pecan Ridge Vineyards in Okemah, Oklahoma (!). Pecan Ridge still claims trademark protection for “Festivus, A Wine for the Restivus.”

If you’re a Seinfeld traditionalist—not that there’s anything wrong with that!—Wagner Company in Milwaukee manufactures and sells Festivus poles; it filed for trademark protection of “Festivus Pole” in 2007. In 2005, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, a self-professed Seinfeld fanatic—he claimed to have seen every episode eight times—displayed an unadorned Festivus pole at the governor’s mansion in Madison. He later donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

Naturally, there are Festivus books. On eBay I discovered Festivus T-shirts, Festivus jewelry, and desktop Festivus poles in three sizes: Deskivus Minimus, Deskivus Maximus, and Deskivus Ultimus. And earlier this month, the Atlanta-based low-fare airline AirTran offered a 12-day Festivus sale on airfares. “Our research shows that high fares are commonly cited in the Festivus Airing of Grievances,” Tad Hutcheson, AirTran’s vice president of marketing and sales, told Portfolio magazine.

But the most persuasive evidence that Festivus has gone mainstream came a couple of weeks ago in the form of a news story out of Orange County, California. It seems that “longtime county inmate” Malcolm Alarmo King—a convicted drug dealer also suspected of being in the United States illegally from Liberia—was displeased by the cuisine being served at Theo Lacy Jail. In particular, he didn’t fancy the salami. Although he isn’t Jewish, he asked for and received kosher meals, which he claimed were healthier. “That didn’t sit well with the Sheriff’s Department – which pays for the food,” the Orange County Register reported. “Kosher meals are more expensive than the regular jail fare–and reserved for those with a religious need.”

So King tried again, claiming at his sentencing hearing to be a believer in Festivus. It worked, and King received three salami-free meals a day for at least two months.

Happy Festivus to all of us!