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This article was published 20/12/2014 (974 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Talk about getting upset over nothing. Or should we say, a show about nothing.
Last December, religious groups were outraged by a Festivus pole fashioned out of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans that was erected near a nativity scene on the grounds of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee.
"Why do I have to drive around with my kids to look at nativity scenes and be like, 'Oh, yeah, kids, look -- there's Baby Jesus behind a Festivus pole made out of beer cans,'" one person wrote to Florida's governor.
The pole was inspired by an episode of Seinfeld. In Season 9 of the long-running sitcom, George Costanza invites his boss Mr. Kruger to his parents' home to celebrate Festivus. Short for "festival for the rest of us," the holiday was concocted by George's father, Frank, to rebut the over-commercialization of Christmas. The chief symbol of Festivus, viewers are told, is an unadorned, aluminum pole, meant to take the place of a fully-trimmed tree. ("I find tinsel distracting," Frank tells his guests.)
Parties offended by the Florida pole also fired off emails to Winnipegger Mark Nelson. Nelson is responsible for the world's pre-eminent Festivus website (www.festivusweb.com) -- a domain that offers details on everything from the celebration's recognized date (Dec. 23) to its traditional, main-course meal (meatloaf) to official merchandise ("It's a Festivus Miracle" T-shirt, $19.99) to its Facebook page (15,251 likes and counting).
"Some right-wingers told me Festivus was taking away from Christmas -- that it was part of the war on Christmas," says Nelson, a "web guy" who created the site in 2007. "I responded very nicely, explaining Festivus is its own entity and that it's all about fun.
"And if there are any religious undertones attached to it, that religion is Seinfeldism."
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In December 2006, Nelson's mother was admitted to St. Boniface General Hospital. For a few weeks, Nelson and his seven siblings took turns visiting her in her room, or checking in on their dad to make sure he was OK on his own. As Dec. 25 approached, Nelson asked his sister, Renee, what the plan was for Christmas that year. Nobody was feeling particularly merry, they concurred. But they both agreed the family should acknowledge the season in some way.
"Why doesn't everybody just come to my place and we'll have a Festivus party, instead?" Renee suggested. "We won't need gifts or anything; we'll just do a pot-luck dinner and, hopefully, have a few laughs."
Because everybody else in the family was also a Seinfeld fan, they all knew what Nelson and Renee were talking about.
"It was supposed to be a one-off but by the time things were winding down, we had already decided we were definitely going to do Festivus again," Nelson says, taking a sip of his coffee.
Since putting his website together, Nelson has heard from people all over the globe who also acknowledge Festivus. He's also been in touch with Dan O'Keefe, the Seinfeld writer chiefly responsible for Festivus in the first place.
"The way he explained it to me, Festivus was a thing with his family -- that it was his dad's crazy, weird notion. One day Dan and the other script-writers were sitting around, floating show ideas when he mentioned (Festivus). The rest of the writers said, 'We love it,' but he said, 'I'm not so sure, it might be hitting too close to home.
"Eventually they talked him into it and, of course, everything turned out fine," Nelson says. "Dan's dad is gone now but I got an email from him last year, saying his father would be absolutely tickled pink from all that he caused."
Tonight, between 15 and 20 people will gather at a nephew's abode to observe the Nelsons' ninth annual Festivus celebration. (To simplify things, the family marks Festivus on the last Saturday before Christmas.) Dressed as their favourite character from Seinfeld, they will watch the Festivus episode together for the umpteenth time, reciting their favourite lines as if they were at a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Later, they'll chow down on foodstuffs directly tied to the series: things such as marble rye bread, Junior Mints, muffin tops and -- "No soup for you!" -- a heaping helping of mulligatawny.
One year after dinner they trotted out a Seinfeld trivia game but that turned out to be a failed experiment, Nelson says, because "everybody knew all the answers -- it was too easy."
As for that other Festivus tradition -- the part of the evening normally reserved for the "airing of grievances" -- well, the Nelsons try to refrain from getting too personal. ("I got a lot of problems with you people and now you're going to hear about it," Frank states, before telling his guests how they disappointed him, that year.)
"Our grievances aren't too threatening," Nelson says with a laugh. "They run more along the lines of 'Bacon is expensive' or 'Drivers don't signal;' Nothing too in your face."
Nelson has a stock answer when people ask him if Festivus has taken the place of Christmas in his household.
"I say 'No, of course we still have Christmas.' Christmas is as good as ever. But once you add Festivus to it, it just makes the whole season more fun. The one thing about Festivus celebrations is they're low-stress; you don't have to shop, you maybe prepare one dish and you show up.
"And hey, it doesn't take that long to put up a pole."
About that pole: anybody in the market for one of their own might want to get in touch with Wagner Collaborative Metal Works, a Wisconsin-based company that bills itself as "the world's largest manufacturer and distributer of Festivus Poles."
"We offer three styles -- a full, floor-size model, a table-top model and a desktop version," says Tony Leto, when reached at his office in Milwaukee.
Although sales have been fairly steady through the years, Leto says demand for Festivus poles went through the roof in 2006 after an article about his firm's product was published by The Associated Press. The story ran on Dec. 23, he says, and his department was inundated with calls -- many from people willing to pay $200 for next-day delivery.
One year, the company even set up a sales lot filled with metal poles in lieu of Christmas trees. "It was awfully cold and licking the poles would not have been a good idea," Leto says, when a scribe asks him the question on the tip of everybody's tongue.
The company ships its poles across North America, and Leto is familiar with orders that have come in from as far away as New Zealand.
"We tend to dissuade them, though, as the freight costs would be prohibitive," he explains. "We suggest they purchase suitable alternatives from a local, home-supply store or metal distributor, instead."