'Seinfeld' over, but Festivus keeps giving
(CNN) -- Long before company celebrators bench-pressed fax machines, partygoers performed competitive face-plants into ice water, or family members gathered around an aluminum pole to wield complaints at one another, the common people of ancient Rome began to act up.
They were the unruly lot during official religious holidays, the ones who were "raising hell on the streets" while the "elite were putting on their robes," said journalist Allen Salkin. The adverb to describe their behavior, he said: Festivus, the Latin world for "festive."
A few thousand years later, and thanks to a "Seinfeld" writer whose father had made Festivus a quirky household tradition, a 1997 episode of the famed sitcom popularized the peculiar day.
To hear it from Frank Costanza, the character played by Jerry Stiller, the December 23 observance calls for little more than the erection of an aluminum pole, the airing of grievances and the demonstration of feats of strength -- which preferably culminate in wrestling down to the ground and pinning the head of the household.
"People want something that's nothing," said Salkin, author of "Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us," a book that chronicles the birth and flourishing of this oddly sacred day. "All the traditional holidays exclude somebody," but with this one, "everyone's in on the joke."
The Festivus faithful have gathered across the globe and have come together in places as various as seedy bars, campus squares and corporate boardrooms. Citizens, with varied degrees of success, have petitioned to raise Festivus poles beside public nativity scenes. Social networking sites and holiday-specific venues -- like festivusbook.com and festivusweb.com -- are go-to places for those who want to share the cheer, or jeers.
For at least eight years, Julianne Donovan, 35, has been hosting Festivus parties in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. The graphic designer and illustrator said she was drawn to the holiday when her then-company department, which included people of various faiths, decided to trade in the traditional Christmas party for something more inclusive.
"It went over well except for one person who thought it was blasphemous and tried to knock over our Festivus pole," she said. "He refused to come to the potluck, was forced to, came, ate all the food and left without saying thank you. Grievances were aired about him."
At her parties, which happen when she feels like throwing them -- perfectly fine, according to Salkin, because "There's no pope of Festivus; you make up whatever rules you want" -- people jot down their grievances and stuff them in the pole. They complain about parking tickets, the economy and their spouses, she said. One of her favorites in recent years read like this: "What's up with the dude in the white shoes? It's way after Labor Day."
People exchange gifts they've received and don't want. Dickies, random hair extensions and shoe-shining kits from the '70s are always appropriate, she said. And feats of strength generally involve thumb-wrestling (costumes for thumbs included) and timed competitions to see who can submerge their face in ice water the longest or hold 3-pound weights to the side for the greatest stretch of time.
"As the hostess," Donovan made clear, "I cheat."
Getting in on the fun in recent years is a stairway railing company called Wagner, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tony Leto, who heads sales and marketing, saw an article about Festivus that Salkin wrote in The New York Times in 2004, a precursor to his book, and thought cutting up pipes to make aluminum holiday poles would be an easy -- and fun -- side business. Thus was born festivuspoles.com, an outfit that's answered thousands of requests for the nonsectarian celebratory metal.
Leto said he's received orders from troops in Afghanistan and people living in Australia, though he's advised across-the-globe customers who can to simply stroll into their local hardware stores and ask for pieces of pipe. When the company sent Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle a Festivus pole in 2005, he put it up in the executive residence. Today it appears in the state's historical museum.
Festivus isn't the only wintertime holiday to be introduced to the masses by television. Fox's "The O.C." brought us "Chrismukkah" in 2003 and continued the holiday throughout the teen drama series' run. Chrismukkah was an answer to the winter holiday dilemma for interfaith families.
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