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I didn’t know until today that Festivus, celebrated Saturday, Dec. 23, wasn’t just made up for the TV show “Seinfeld,” but was an honest-to-goodness family tradition of one of the show’s writers, a tradition the other writers had to talk him into using in a television script.
According to O’Keefe family legend, the first Festivus occurred in 1966 to commemorate when Daniel Lawrence O’Keefe, the father of the Seinfeld writer (also named Daniel), took Deborah, the woman who would soon be his wife and mother of his children, out on their first date. Rather than busting out a Festivus pole (which was invented for the Seinfeld script), the O’Keefe family’s yearly celebration involved nailing a bagged clock to the wall – a ritual whose purpose, O’Keefe Sr. darkly told his children, was “not for you to know!” – and wearing silly decorated hats, including a Viking hat with Play-Doh horns.
O’Keefe Sr. did intend Festivus to be a purely secular family holiday, devoid of religious (or political) implications. So Festivus always has had an element of conscious rebellion against tradition. He was an author who had developed his own theories about the sociology of ritual and what he called “magic”:
The symbolic action of magic differs from other action and speech in the use of rigid scripts. These are borrowed from the sacred dramas of religion, where they give a core of certainty to collective experience, and then are used by magic to help the individual speak, act and think. The most powerful symbols of all are those that are most fixed — the “categories” of human thought, which were forged in the sacred dramas. They provide logical operators enabling individual minds to work with spontaneity on collective representations. And both religion and magic remember better than science does that these categories were sacred creations which can be altered tomorrow to disintegrate the conventional frame of reference and produce miraculous effects.
He also took inspiration from Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape: the Airing of Grievances began as a time for family members to record on cassette whatever had been bugging them that year. The Feats of Strength began as the kind of horsing around you expect in a house full of sons.
Deliberately constructing a ritual to impose on one’s family, rather than yielding to inherited tradition, might smack of a fatuous sort of arrogance. But besides being a man of strong opinions, O’Keefe Sr. was also a husband and father, and whatever he might have been trying to prove sociologically by inventing Festivus, a holiday commemorating when you began to court your spouse, a courtship that led to the formation of the particular family you have, and not any other, is really rather sweet.
When Festivus comes to our political attention, it’s likely to be because Rand Paul is airing his yearly grievances on Twitter or because someone has petitioned to erect a public Festivus pole alongside public Christmas Trees or Nativities in order to protest religion in the public square – or to protest Trump. Seeing Festivus used as an anti-Christian or anti-Republican stunt isn’t likely to endear it to most of us. So it’s nice to learn of this other side to Festivus – as one family’s eccentric tradition, a humorous celebration of the particular families we have, in all their peculiarity and eccentricity, with no larger mystical point than families are families together.