Have We Lost Sight of the True Meaning of Festivus?

Dec 23, 2013 at 10:38 AM ET

As you sit around the aluminum pole this Festivus, staring down your 5-year-old niece, perhaps trying to decide whether you could best her in a wrestling match, it may occur to you that while Festivus is your favorite holiday, you (like me) don’t know much about it other than what you’ve seen on Seinfeld. Like all holidays, the modern celebration is now so removed from the original that you don’t know what exactly you’re celebrating: Why do we challenge one another to feats of strength? Who aired the first grievance?

Tweet at us: What grievances are you airing?

To find out, I spoke with Larry O’Keefe, brother of Dan O’Keefe, who wrote the original Seinfeld episode. The O’Keefe family invented and celebrated the tradition in the 1960s, and what you see in the Seinfeld episode is almost exactly what it was like in real life. Larry took time away from his busy schedule writing hilarious musicals to explain to me just what kind of person submits his family to this kind of torture.

I wasn’t really able to find anything online about the real Festivus other than fan sites. So I guess right off the bat: How crazy was it? Were there actually wrestling matches?
Well, first off, my brother Dan wrote a book called The Real Festivus. There are actually two books, but the other one is filled with misinformation and lies.

Over the years my brothers and I have tried to figure out why the hell this holiday actually happened in the first place. My mom and dad would never really let on. They would always allude to a general celebration of our family—which made us feel like we were aliens. My parents would like to have a Festivus when a relative would be around for it, but the relative would always come out traumatized. So my brothers and I found out very quickly that this is something you do not talk about.

After doing a lot of research, we think that Festivus was probably created before we were born as a sort of an anniversary and, as far as I can tell, it was commemorating either my mom and dad’s first date or the first time they had sex, or possibly both. Their first date was in 1962, so it was not a time when you talk about these things, and from what I know now about my mom’s WASP-iness and my dad’s ability to go on and on for hours without actually saying anything, I think that’s probably the best guess. Other incidents over the years have led to the belief that everything in my parents’ relationship was contained in this holiday. If their relationship had been actually happy, Festivus would have been a relatively trouble-free event—and there were many, many years when they were using it to send coded messages of resentment to each other.

Do you think that it’s an effective method of purging yourself of familial acrimony?

Wow, a straight-up no!
Well, it’s hard to say. If I had an ordinary father, maybe that is the year-long purge, like the movie The Purge that came out where you get all you anger out in one day, if it actually remained out of your system for the year, that would have been great. There would have been a useful point to it. But what it was, the way the thing would progress, at some time between August and Thanksgiving we’d get off the school bus, and my mom would have a look on her face. We’d go inside and there’d be strange decorations all over the place and M&Ms strewn all over the table, and we’d have a dinner that wasn’t totally unlike Thanksgiving, but it’d have a weird, store-bought Pepperidge farm cake at the end of it. Then there’d be all sorts of weird utterances. My father would lead us in song, he’d play certain things on his record player—which were mostly pop songs from the ’50s when he was single. Then we’d all retire to the living room where my dad would take out the dreaded tape recorder.

He would start narrating into the tape recorder all his feelings about the previous year and expect us to chime in and give our opinions, which would always turn into him interrogating us, because we were now up very late and wanted to go to bed. But of course, the more beer he drank and the more he grilled us, the more resentful we’d become until, finally, we were crying into a microphone. Then my dad would try to salvage the evening and put a happy ending on it, but never successfully. It was never fun.

So the end result of it was that my dad was very self-dramatizing, self-mythologizing and was very fond of the Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape. Which was a very strong influence on the evening.

When you have a family holiday that’s based on a Beckett play, I think that’s all you need to know.

From what you just described, I guess it goes without saying that there was a lot of fictionalization in the Seinfeld episode.
The aluminum pole was definitely invented as a sort of apt symbol. It did not exist in our celebrations.

Also, in the episode, Jerry Stiller, George’s dad, had designed it because he decided he hated Christmas and he wanted to reject it. Which is not chronologically accurate. My dad never actually said he wanted to replace Christmas, but he was heard to say how much he hated Christmas because it was Christian oppression. He was a lapsed Catholic, and rejected the religion at the age of 20 and resolved to build a strong family ritual without the hideous rituals and guilt of Catholicism. Of course, he just recreated those hideous rituals and guilt in the form of “family rituals.” He was always recreating Catholicism without even knowing it.

So the aluminum pole was an addition but was also in the spirit of Festivus. As was the “feats of strength.” We were three brothers born within three years of each other and were all very hostile. We were always wrestling anyway because we fought. There wasn’t any less or more on non-Festivus days, but it was often caught on my dad’s microphone.

The term “airing of grievances” was invented by my brother for the episode, but it was a very accurate description of what my dad would be doing. My dad would spend hours every Festivus complaining about his job as an editor at Reader’s Digest and the office politics there.

So, yeah, nothing was purely made up in the episode. There were precursors to all these things, but they found different ways to express it on the show.

I hate that I’m laughing at all this.
Wasn’t it Steve Martin or Walker Percy who said that writing is the art of turning your pain into money?

That’s perfectly put.
My brother has made money off of this, so it’s not all bad.

It just seems perfectly tailored for Seinfeld and George Costanza’s family. It’s so cartoonish. And, just thinking about the episode, I’m trying to figure out what kind of person does this in real life? I guess I assumed your parents had a really warped sense of humor.
Well, yeah, actually my dad did have a really warped sense of humor. A really Asperger’s sense of humor. He was a really lonely dude who was obsessed with how we communicated with each other. He actually homeschooled us everyday after school. He’d try to teach us all the Indo-European languages and would often try to teach them to us before he would master them. So we’d learn them wrong. He started teaching me German at the age of 7.

Yeah, German, Italian, Swedish. He seemed to be preoccupied with how people communicated with one another but was more interested in studying it than actually doing it. Which is classic Asperger’s.

But he did have a sense of humor and loved trying to make us laugh. And for a while it worked. There was actually something he was trying to celebrate. He just couldn’t pull it off well.

I don’t want to traumatize you any more than necessary, but is there one moment that you can identify as the ultimate Festivus moment?
Hmm. I think the moment was when our cousin Julie came. Every once in a while, our cousins would come visit from D.C. They’d send one of theirs to us or we’d send someone down there, and since Julie was coming to visit for just one weekend, our father decided to throw an impromptu Festivus. And, so the one that really crystalized it for me was when she was involved and we got some outside perspective. We never really realized how fucking sick we must seem to the outside world.

After we ate dinner we all retired to the living room and my dad started interrogating and drilling Julie like she was one of us. She was maybe 10 or 11, and she was in school studying Death of a Salesman, and he demanded that she perform Linda Loman’s graveside monologue. Then he started giving her acting lessons. And he was not qualified.

By the end of the evening, she was probably not crying, but that’s because she came from a tough family of stiff upper-lipped people. I think that was the moment when my brothers and I realized, “No one must ever know about this weird aberration.”

In fact, my then-girlfriend, who’s now my wife, didn’t know anything about it until she found out an episode was coming out. No one would have known except my younger brother let it slip at a party in front of Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg, who were the head writers on Seinfeld at the time, and my brother Dan had recently joined the staff. Jeff and Alec went to my brother and said, “We’re going to do an episode about this.” Dan said, “No fucking way.” To which they responded, “Well, actually, Danny, you’re going to write it, or we will.” So, Dan laid bare some of our pain.

I could go on and on, but I’m trying really hard to not be like my dad. Though, I have to say, I am enjoying swearing in front of my 13-month-old daughter.

How do you feel about the appropriation by atheists?
I am all for that. I’m a big fan of what atheists are trying to do. I’m a big fan of trying to come up with humorous or user-friendly versions of atheism. I think America was more or less settled by people who hated their families or else they wouldn’t have left. So hating—or at least admitting that there’s something wrong about your family—is always healthy. I think it’s better than slavishly worshiping or insisting that your family do the same. I think that atheism is the same way: Atheism is to Christianity as awareness of Festivus is to religion. Or something like that.

I loved learning that several state governments are accepting Festivus displays as part of their religious iconography. I’m all for that.

So you’re a supporter of the PBR pole in Florida?
Oh, yeah! I don’t even know how deep their research was—I think they must have done research because my dad’s drink of choice was PBR. And he drank a lot of it! He was one of their biggest customers. In fact, to this day, when I smell it, I have to leave the room. When the hipsters appropriated it, it made it hard for me to go out to places in Brooklyn.

Were you overwhelmed with emotion or…
It just brought back the memory of the smell of a lot of beer being drunk by…by…. Well, lets just say that the smell is evocative and, yeah, it’s pretty Proustian.

Proustian! That’s a great way of putting it. So I guess it’s safe to say you don’t celebrate Festivus today or anything resembling it?
No, no. I don’t celebrate it, but I’m very happy to let everybody else do it. I think what I’ve concluded that I’m gratified that some good has come of it: A holiday invented by a contrarian crank has somehow gotten a wider appeal. It’s no longer a niche thing. I think the way that if my dad were still alive and that if he could see how it’s being celebrated these days, he would disapprove. And the contrarian crank in me is delighted by that.

Do you think he’d be upset by the commercialization of it?
[Laughs] Well, believe me, if there were a way people could make money on it, I would be utterly delighted and amused!