January 24, 2017

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What’s the deal with Festivus?

How a small storyline in a Seinfeld episode became a grand – and ongoing – non-Christmas tradition

“A Festivus... for the rest of us!”

It was supposed to be a throwaway line in a secondary storyline in an episode of Seinfeld whose main focus was the ridiculous notion that Kramer, rather than being chronically underemployed as had been believed since the show’s première eight years earlier, had actually been on strike against a New York bagel shop for the past 12 years.

But instead of being a one-and-done joke in the 10th episode of Seinfeld’s final season, “a Festivus for the rest of us” has become arguably the most enduring contribution to pop culture by a sitcom that spawned more catchphrases per season (“shrinkage,” “master of my domain,” “low talker,” “spongeworthy,” “close talker,” “re-gifter,” “yada yada,” “jimmy legs,” “hipster doofus” and “No soup for you!” to name just a few) than any other show in TV history.

Here’s how this great tradition began, and how you can do it, too.

HOW IT BEGAN

In the episode titled The Strike, Jerry, George and Elaine are shown sitting in a booth at Monk’s Café, their regular coffee-shop hangout, engaged in the pointless sort of banter that helped Seinfeld earn its status as "the show about nothing."

George opens, and then tries to conceal, a greeting card that he says is from his father; Elaine snatches it from his hands and reads aloud the message inside: "Dear son, Happy Festivus," which prompts her to ask what Festivus is.

George, agitated by the thought, won’t talk about it, but Jerry explains that Festivus is a holiday invented by George’s father, Frank Costanza, as an antidote to the commercial and religious trappings of Christmas.

And what follows is a Kramer-energized subplot in which Frank resurrects the Dec. 23 tradition of Festivus — complete with unadorned aluminum Festivus pole ("A very high strength-to-weight ratio," boasts Frank), Festivus dinner, the annual airing of grievances and the "feats of strength" portion of the celebration, in which a mortified George is eventually ordered to wrestle and pin his father in order to bring Festivus to a conclusion.

HOW IT GREW

The episode first aired on Dec. 18, 1997, and despite the absurdity of the Festivus storyline (which, in fact, was inspired by real-life events in Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe’s childhood), something about Frank Costanza’s made-up holiday resonated with viewers and quickly took on a life beyond the legendary sitcom’s fictional world.

These days, Festivus occupies a weird out-there space in the pop-culture ethos, somewhere between imbedded tradition and extended running joke.

It’s recognized by many as an actual event on the seasonal schedule, though it’s safe to say that not even the most staunch of those Festivus supporters takes its notation on the Dec. 23 calendar square all that seriously.

HOW IT LIVES ON

People who celebrate it do so strictly for fun, but that hasn’t stopped some politically sensitive commentators in the U.S. from folding Festivus into the seemingly endless discussion of secular society’s perceived "war on Christmas."

It isn’t, of course, part of a war on anything, except perhaps stodginess. Festivus is fun. And funny.

And if you’re looking for an amusing way to spend this year’s Christmas Eve Eve (Dec. 23), you can find all the info you need on a Festivus-focused website (www.festivusweb.com) created and maintained by Winnipegger Mark Nelson.

HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN FESTIVUS

The basics are as simple and unadorned as a smooth and shiny aluminum shaft:

Festivus Pole — requires no decoration whatsoever. "I find tinsel distracting," is Frank Costanza’s rationale.

Festivus dinner — anything simple will suffice, but the meal served at Frank’s during The Strike is meatloaf on a bed of lettuce.

Airing of grievances — a time to wipe the slate clean by giving voice to anything and everything that bugs you about your family and friends. "I got a lot of problems with you people!" Frank informs his guests. "And now you’re gonna hear about it!"

Feats of strength — with grievance-induced tensions simmering, it’s time to bring Festivus to an appropriately angry conclusion; the holiday can’t end, however, until a guest combatant (chosen by the host) wrestles the head of the household to the ground and pins him (or her). Your reaction to this might be similar to George’s: "Not the feats of strength... Oh, please, somebody stop this..."

Ctrl+F is a dose of local flavour from life in our city. Produced with care and character by @WinnipegNews, this online conversation is published Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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