Thursday, Dec. 21, at 1 p.m. ET
A Festivus for the Rest of Us
Thursday, December 21, 2006; 1:00 PM
Since Festivus was first mentioned during a 1997 episode of "Seinfeld,"
Enjoy the airing your grievances and performing feats of strength with Festivus expert and former "Seinfeld" writer Dan O'Keefe, author of "The Real Festivus" (Penguin Books, $12.95). O'Keefe was online Thursday, Dec. 21, at 1 p.m. to take questions about the holiday.
A transcript follows.
Dan O'Keefe: I've never done one of these. I can barely operate a computer. If I crash the entire national electrical grid, sorry.
Washington, D.C.: What is the traditional Festivus meal? Is it a grouse?
Dan O'Keefe: The traditional Festivus meal in my house was a turkey from roughly '71 to '79, then a ham for unexplained reasons from about '79 to '84, then back to a turkey. No idea why.
St. Mary's City, Md.: When I saw "The Strike," I interpreted Festivus as an satirical allegory for how American Jews often feel overwhelmed by Christmas. Was this intentional? Certainly American Jewish themes can be found throughout "Seinfeld."
Regardless of the intention, "The Strike" is one of the show's funniest episodes. I loved the symbol of the aluminum pole as the antithesis of commercialized Christmas. I believe Festivus resonates with people of all faiths because we seek to "air our grievances" with Christmas's yearly domination of our society.
Dan O'Keefe: American Jewish themes can certainly be found throughout "Seinfeld." However, when the show was created, I was in college. Festivus was not an allegory, but, as so often happened on that show as on many shows, a cannibalization of personal experience: in this case, an overeducated, lapsed Jesuit of working-class Irish origins (my dad) made up a holiday and had his family celebrate it, one of whom (me) went on to put the damn thing on TV.
Glad you liked the pole. But it was about the commercialization of the holiday season in general in addition to Christmas, and the airing of grievances in no way, either in real life or on the show, was meant to represent a grievance with any "yearly domination" Christmas may exert.
Flattered you found it so funny.
Arlington, Va.: Wait -- Festivus was just a big maker-upper from an episode of "Seinfeld." How could your family have been celebrating it in the '70s? I'm so confused.
Dan O'Keefe: No, actually, as a writer on the show, I let it slip that my father had invented a strange holiday and had us celebrate it for years and years. Jerry and the other writers found this so amusing they made me write it into an episode I was doing. The whole story can be found in "The Real Festivus" by Dan O'Keefe (me) from Perigee Books, available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.
My dad initially created the cursed thing as an anniversary of his first date with my mom (in 1961) and began celebrating it with in '65. I was only born in '68, but some of my earliest memories are of that strange holiday, long before it infected our nation on a larger scale.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I have declared at my workplace that I celebrate Festivus. What days am I allowed to declare that I may take off from work as a part of my new belief?
Dan O'Keefe: None. You will be fired, as Kramer was.
Takoma Park, Md.: As a long-time Festivus celebrant, I am always taken aback when people think that is was invented on "Seinfeld." It was invented by Samuel Becket, correct?
Dan O'Keefe: Ah! A piece of the truth! No, it was invented by my dad, also named Daniel O'Keefe, but a large portion of the original celebration (as opposed to the TV version) was a taping session in which we tape recorded as a family a recap of the previous year. Not all airing of grievances, some reminiscing about pleasant things, but certainly a lot of the former. Now, while initially the celebration was of my parents' first date, initiated before I was even born, on that first date my dad apparently gave my mom a copy of "Krapp's Last Tape," the Beckett play about the crazy old man listening to and making tape recordings. When my brothers and I came along, my father added as components to the holiday 1) us, and 2) the practice of, after a large meal and recitation of various poetry, TAPE RECORDING his family jabbering, in conscious imitation of Beckett. So there you go.
Arlington, Va.: Did you get any push-back from the other writers when you wrote the Festivus episode?
Dan O'Keefe:"Push-back?" Huh? You mean, resistance? No, people thought it was funny. And rather bizarre and sad. I believe Jerry asked, "Why are you alive?"
Lyme, Conn.: I hate the social obligation of purchasing gifts that people don't need because if they needed it they would have gotten it already, yet since I am obligated to buy something, I buy things I believe are easiest to dispose of, which really shows that I am aware and really do care. Are there any good Festivus gifts that you can recommend?
Dan O'Keefe: Our gifts were mostly joke gifts. We'd wrap up rocks, sticks, bricks, rolls of toilet paper, things we already owned, etc. I'd recommend a collected edition of the "Onion," or an actual onion.
Washington, D.C.: I'm an atheist who loves Christmas. Santa Claus, reindeer, carols, Christmas trees, snowmen, the suave booze-fueled seduction of "Let it Snow," the strings of lights, the 1972 Sears Catalog G.I. Joe section, the stack of albums in my parents' basement -- You don't see anyone in "The Christmas Story" praying. My friends, Jewish and not, used to get one of our parents to drive us to the mall and we'd just soak up all the secular atmosphere of the bustling mall at holiday time. Festivus doesn't improve on any of that and Christmas has been a non-religious holiday since as far back as I remember it in the mid 1960s. Frankly, I find your holiday annoying and taking away from Christmastime. Why should Festivus exist?
Dan O'Keefe: I like all that too. I find your question annoying and taking away from MY time. Why shouldn't it exist? Who cares? Too late, it already exists. It's not trying to IMPROVE on anything, it's a small piece of one episode of a TV show that folks seem to dig, for some reason.
D.C.: So was "feats of strength" part of your Dad's original holiday? If so, care to describe how?
Dan O'Keefe: No. If there'd been real father/son wrestling, the State of New York woulda taken us away. I regularly beat the crap out of my younger brothers during the holiday, though, out of high holiday spirits.
Long Beach, Calif.: I am so glad you had the temerity to put this family celebration on TV. I would have been mortified as a kid to admit it existed... my family was forever trying on different stuff and I just wanted to meld into the wall paint to hide!
But today, my friends and I were thinking of doing a Festivus celebration after Christmas and before new year. Would you say that is an appropriate time? (Given that your dad had such a perfect "date" for your family's celebration... we don't have such a momentous day)
And did you really have "the feat of strength"?
Dan O'Keefe: I didn't initially want to put it on TV. The story kinda leaked to the other writers, who pressured me into writing it in. The holiday itself was mortifying for years, yes, so I feel your pain. Since in REAL LIFE it was a "floating holiday" that we celebrated anywhere from October to May, at my dad's whim, I'd say anytime is fine. Dec. 23 was an arbitrary date we made up for the episode.
Scranton, Pa.: In my Irish Catholic family, we didn't need Festivus to have the "Airing of Grievances", heck, that was every night at the dinner table!
By the way, I, too, find tinsel distracting.
Dan O'Keefe: Oh, we had it nightly at the table, too, it just came to a Eugene O'Neill-like head on this holiday.
Adams Morgan-ish, D.C.: When you first pitched the Festivus idea for the episode, did the rest of the "Seinfeld" team receive it warmly?
Dan O'Keefe: It was received with disbelief and expressions of sorrow for my mangled childhood.
Arlington, Va.: What date should Festivus be celebrated on? I've heard Dec. 23.
Dan O'Keefe: Any date. The 23rd was just a line we threw in the show, the real Festivus was anywhere from October to May; it varied; twice it coincided with Thanksgiving.
Alexandria, Va.: I remember eating Ben&Jerry's Festivus ice cream once.
Dan O'Keefe: Congratulations. Cherish that memory.
Bethesda, Md.: What is the Festivus pole used for?
Dan O'Keefe: On the show, it replaced the pole because of its greater simplicity and elegance, and because Frank Costanza was crazy and clearly meant to be associated with the more fascistic tendencies of Italian Futurism.
In real life, the symbols of the holiday were a CLOCK AND A BAG. Don't know why. Really. If we'd had a metal pole, someone woulda brained someone with it.
Downtown: How tall is a Festivus pole? Could I, for example, use my parents artificial Christmas tree before they insert the branches? The pole is 5-feet tall. Also, would I put a skirt around the base?
Dan O'Keefe: Tall enough to reach the ground.
Washington, D.C.: So is Festivus a real holiday? What was your inspiration?
Dan O'Keefe: My dad made it up originally to celebrate his first date with my mom, and kept adding elements so it got increasingly weirder and more gothic. I think the inspirations were, on his part, 1) advanced degrees in sociology, anthropology and psychology, 2) a background as a guy who originally wanted to become a Jesuit, 3) Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Ghost of Festivus Past: Any comment on the growing commercialism of Festivus itself?
Dan O'Keefe: I don't know you can commercialize something so ridiculous. I do know several small businesses make a living selling poles and such, and I can only applaud that.
Claverack: Are you any relation to B-movie actor Miles O'Keefe? If so, can he get me some of that Festivus ice cream Ben & Jerry's made a few years ago? They stopped making it, and now that I can't get it. I want some.
Dan O'Keefe: Not related. Probably he can't since he's dead. I found it odd-tasting. I believe I am related (distantly) to the heroic Detective Michael O'Keefe from Brooklyn, who touched off what's called the "Washington Heights Riots" by defending himself.
Washington, D.C.: Hey Dan,
I had no idea that Festivus was in existence prior to that episode, interesting. Anyway, just for your own amusement, I just wanted to tell you how your holiday has caught on with my friends. One of my friends started throwing a Festivus party a couple of years ago and it has become quite popular. We just had it this Tuesday. In typical fashion, we do the feats of strength and airing of grievances (my favorite part) as well as sit around the aluminum pole. It's caught on so much that we actually named our Frisbee team the "Festivus Flyers." Yes, a bit cheesy but appropriate for us "Seinfeld" addicts. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for sharing the holiday with the rest of us.
Dan O'Keefe: That's really cool. Thanks.
Laurel, Md.: Where can I make a donation to The Human Fund?
Dan O'Keefe: Uhh...mail it to me and I'll be sure they get it.
Bethesda, Md.: Are you aware that the Maryland state lottery even had a scratch off ticket called Festivus? It had a Baltimore Ravens tie-in as I recall, who blatantly and frequently ripped off the idea without ever, to my knowledge, acknowledging the show.
Dan O'Keefe: Anyone can rip it off, I guess. Doesn't bother me.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Where can I get a good Festivus pole?
Dan O'Keefe: Try the one up Bill O'Reilly's ass.
Damascus, Md.: So what were some of your most memorable "feats of strength" from your days of celebration? I've often wondered if the insurance companies were instrumental in suppressing the holiday for fear of claims....
Dan O'Keefe: The main "feat of strength" was getting through the holiday itself -- it was a grueling six- to 10-hour affair -- a meal of such proportions it's a wonder stomachs didn't burst, listening to LP after LP of IRA songs and weird Italian pop music from the '50s that sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and lastly marathon tape-recording sessions breaking down and reviewing the year.
Olney, Md.: So when is this anniversary? Am I free to celebrate it tomorrow night? I'd love to air my grievances with my parents and sisters (my wife surely would love me to), and they will all be over then.
Dan O'Keefe: It is literally whenever you choose. Air those grievances!
Bethesda, Md.: I think Festivus has gotten too commercial. How can we get back to the true meaning of Festivus?
Dan O'Keefe: Having been there at the original Festivus, I gotta ask: you sure you WANT to get back to the true meaning of Festivus?
I would say stop buying expensive gifts, and spend more time telling your family how they've disappointed you.
Feat of Strength?: I'm with you! But what of "the feat of strength" ?
Can I assume your "Seinfeld" episode is an accurate play-by-play of how to do a proper Festivus... or did you add stuff like the "feat of strength" ?
Dan O'Keefe: Feats of strength were added as a joke.
The pole replaced the real symbols, the clock and the bag, which were deemed too weird.
The grievances were very real.
A detailed description of how to celebrate a classical Festivus is contained in my book "The Real Festivus," by Dan O'Keefe, from Perigee Books, available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.
Douglas Coupland: You were born in 1968. So was I.
Do you find that Generation X types -- especially comics -- relate to one another better than they do to other generations? Is this because Baby Boomers are self-absorbed and Generation Ys are, you know, like... stupid or something?
PS - What's Patton Oswalt like?
Dan O'Keefe: Is this really DC? Wow.
Comics don't relate to anyone. X-folk do seem to me to relate best to their own generation, sure, but don't all generations? I don't know, maybe it's more extreme in the case of those born after '65 and before, well, whenever the cutoff year is. '77? I would love to be able to apply such broad labels to groups of millions of people, it would simplify things immeasurably, but I just don't think all or most or even a hell of a lot of Boomers are self-absorbed, ditto with Y's being dumbasses. I think people are ignorant when young and arrogant when old, as they have been since time immemorial.
Patton Oswalt is hilarious and a nice guy. I've only spoken to him socially maybe six times, but I've seen his act 60 times. He truly is the Patton Oswalt of our generation.
Washington, D.C.: How did your father react when he learned that Festivus would be on "Seinfeld"? How does he feel now that it has a cult following?
Dan O'Keefe: Confused but proud.
Fairfax, Va.: "It had a Baltimore Ravens tie in as I recall, who blatantly and frequently ripped off the idea without ever, to my knowledge, acknowledging the show."
The Ravens tie-in to Festivus because a few years ago Billick wouldn't let them say the word "playoffs". So they started calling the playoffs, Festivus Maximus. Or something like that.
Dan O'Keefe: Yeah, I remember that. That was peculiar.
Oxon Hill, Md.: What was your favorite grievance airing?
Dan O'Keefe: When I told my folks I hated playing the string bass because I was always tripping on the stairs and rolling down them with it on top of me, invariably breaking my glasses. (Age 10?)
Roseland, N.J.:"IRA songs"? As in Irish Republican Army? Don't have any. Can I substitute songs from IRS Records? "Radio Free Europe" maybe?
Dan O'Keefe: Yes. And any of their early ska albums, particularly Selecter's "Celebrate the Bullet."
Washington, D.C.: Did your father ever actually say, "A Festivus for the rest of us" or is that just on the show?
Dan O'Keefe: Yes he did. It referred to the death of my grandmother, Jeanette Marie O'Connor O'Keefe, in 1976. The next year he opened the ceremonies by saying "This is a Festivus for the rest of us," meaning the living, and not the faithful departed.
Arlington, Va.: Was your family holiday only for immediate family members? Did aunts uncles, cousins or grandparents participate? Or, horror of horrors, did non-family members ever witness the madness?
Dan O'Keefe: One poor cousin (from Alexandria, Va., by the way) attended one year. She manages to live an almost normal life.
Jon, Va.: My family does an exchange of gifts where we try to give each other the worst presents. Would that fit in with your holiday? We have been doing this for the last 15 years or so, way before the episode.
Dan O'Keefe: That's EXACTLY what we did, pretty much. Keep it up!
Baltimore: I gotta tell ya, from these stories your dad sounds like an absolutely wonderful guy -- to make up a holiday that included elements of Beckett and the IRA is superbly creative.
Besides the book, what have you been doing since "Seinfeld" ended? Writing for any other shows? (Which I think would have hard after reaching the pinnacle of modern sitcomdom.)
Dan O'Keefe: "Drew Carey Show" for six years, some movie stuff, the "Real Festivus" book, Jason Alexander's second sitcom "Listen Up," I shot a pilot for FOX a few months back with a big, bald, British comic starring in it, Al Murray. I keep busy.
And thanks, my dad is a cool guy.
Washington, D.C.: I am fascinated by your family recordings. Do you still have them? Do you LISTEN to them? We have a huge and complete collection of family slides, all pix taken by my father. Each child has a catalog, and there is a huge family catalog (10 or 12 carousels). One year my father decided to take out the bad ones -- funny faces, poking each other, whatever. We of course decided to keep them, and made a separate catalog of the culls. My sister narrated the first showing, and we occasionally get together with the sole purpose of viewing these horrible family pix captured on film. We end up in tears. Only immediate family -- and those who have married in -- have ever seen this slide show.
Dan O'Keefe: Such recordings do exist.
They are terrifying.
Washington, DC: Are there traditional refreshments one serves at a Festivus gathering?
Dan O'Keefe: Alcohol.
A turkey or other large piece of dead animal. Festivus abhors a vegetarian. Sorry, hippies.
It varied, actually, whatever's available is fine. Good luck and Godspeed with your celebration.
Thanks, everyone! This was a lot of fun! I hope that really was Douglas Coupland!
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