Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us
by Allen Salkin
Published by Warner Books
144 pages, 2005
What kind of dog should single men use to pick up women in the park? It's this kind of question that investigative journalist Allen Salkin is skilled at answering armed with research and field testing. In fact, he recently tested several dog breeds in the same park, putting that scientific hypothesis we all learned in 7th grade science to excellent use. He even got a few dates out of it.
His investigative skills are much more rigorously tested in his new book, Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us. Playing the straight man to every Festivus incident, anecdote and weirdness he unearths, he chronicles the absurdity and purity of a holiday many people have never heard of, some people are confused by, and a small but avid portion of the population celebrates.
For most people, Festivus entered public consciousness with the December 1997 Seinfeld episode #166 where Frank Costanza tells Kramer that he dreamed up the holiday when he found himself fighting over a doll while Christmas shopping. As he remembers, "I realized there had to be a better way." Before Frank could utter "Festivus for the rest of us!" the holiday, occurring on December 23, was born. A naked aluminum pole in place of a tree, a ban on tinsel, an airing of grievances and the conclusion where the head of the family is wrestled to the floor constituted the basics of Seinfeld Festivus.
The funniest thing about this book is that, indeed, everything in it is true. As Salkin writes near the beginning "Festivus is just a word and maybe that is its magic." In this volume, Festivus is documented as being something much more than just a word -- a holiday both hilarious in execution and that resonates with the growing number of adherents celebrating it every year.
The chief elements of the holiday include the aluminum pole which can take many forms (the author has taken to carrying his own to parties), the Airing of Grievances which involves "lashing into others and the world about how they have been disappointments," and the Feats of Strength. Similar to some of your more traditional winter festivities except with no trees to decorate, no menorahs to light, no presents to wrap or open -- Festivus just cuts to the core of traditional holiday gatherings, straight to the bitching and then to cathartic physical exertion.
Salkin spoke with January Magazine recently about his new book, the inside scoop on what that Festivus wine really tastes like and the buzzing feeling he gets in his stomach.
Simone Swink: Why write this?
Allen Salkin: Last December, a friend of mine in Ohio said to me: I'm going to a Festivus party tonight. I said: What? Seinfeld? A week later, I woke up in the middle of the night and said: There's a story here. So I pitched it to the New York Times for the "Styles" section and they wanted to do it so I started reporting it. And I realized there was this incredible story here about people all over the country celebrating Festivus.
It was one of the most e-mailed stores from the Times for two weeks. People started contacting me with this story of their own Festivus experiences. And I realized there was a story here. There's a feeling that you get when there's a story that nobody knows about ... and it's like magic. It's like going to a different planet that nobody knows about. It's a buzzing feeling that's visceral, right above your stomach.
As a journalist, that's what you live for. So I wrote a real quick book proposal and showed it to two book companies. Both of them wanted to buy it. Warner Books bought it, I hired a research assistant, and went full bore.
In the author's note in the front of the book, I wrote that: Everything in this book is 100 per cent true. This is all real.
It's a book that's funny because of what's in it that's real. People are actually celebrating this holiday and have invented new kinds of ways to celebrate Festivus.
What emerged as your favorite story out of the research process?
The best Festivus party in America is thrown in Kansas City, Missouri by a woman named Julianne Donovan and her friends. The reason that it's the best party in America is that she's invented so many clever new rituals that stay within the spirit of Festivus.
Remind us of the Festivus basics...
You need an aluminum pole which can be the size of a nail to a pole six feet tall. You hold the Airing of Grievances followed by the Feats of Strength. Traditionally during FOS, you wrestle with those people who just aired their grievances against you. It's a perfect circle of grievance airing and physical activity. In many ways, it's like the regular holidays.
At Julianne's party in Kansas City, they figured out more interesting ways to observe. Instead of wrestling, they have an actual wrestling rink for thumbs. They have a contest where people have to hold their breath under ice water. Plus, they even have a mascot that they sewed out of a quilt. Seeing how these really creative people riffed on the holiday was one of my favorite things.
But the other thing I enjoyed was the serious side of it, how this weird unreligious holiday has managed to find itself in the middle of the ongoing debate about the separation of church and state. Particularly in Florida where there was this church that erected a nativity on lawn of government administration building. In order to protest this, another group put up a sign next to the nativity that said "Festivus for the rest of us" and it somehow crystallized the debate saying the government is about more than one religion.
Festivus, because it has more than one meaning and doesn't include anybody, it's sort of an instant, perfect holiday. It just says: the rest of us.
How do you celebrate?
I've taken to walking the streets carrying a Festivus pole. I'm showing up at Halloween parties as a Festivus celebrant.
How do people react?
Some people just know and say "nice Festivus pole." Some people think it's part of a Festivus pole. It's the ultimate conversation piece and that's really what it's meant to be. By acknowledging that you know, it's almost saying you made yourself clever.
Kookiest people you ran into?
I loved the Miss Festivus thing because it's so organic. This woman who probably wouldn't win a normal beauty contest, who's a volunteer firefighter decided: Hey, I'm Miss Festivus. The only thing you have to do is fashion your own sash. There's this fun homegrown reality to it.
That was just sort of perfect -- the magic of the holidays. It always seems to come back to the same thing no matter how inventive people get: the theme of their inventiveness is the same. It's people inventing rituals for themselves and that's what it has that's so appealing. Nobody is telling you what to do. Frank Costanza is a fictional character. Nobody has to believe in him. All kids have to believe in Santa Claus.
As part of your research, did you try any of the Festivus wine or beer?
Not the beer, beer does not travel well and a lot of them are microbrews. Festivus wine, yes. It's from Okemo, Oklahoma which is also the birthplace of Woody Guthrie which is sort of just perfect. An actual wine critic does the official winetasting in the book. The vintner is putting out the best of his wine 2005 now.
How do you celebrate Festivus? What rites do you incorporate? Did you grow up with it or recently convert?
Before I found out that people were actually celebrating it, I didn't. This is really my first Festivus season, though Festivus can happen at any time during the year. I'm throwing a lot of Festivus parties this season and I sing a Festivus carol "Gather 'Round the Pole." I serve Festivus Pole stuffed with chocolate salami. There's no actual salami, the name is a little misleading -- it gives you a little bit of a buzz for some reason.
I'm a big thumbwrestler, too. At some point, you realize that you've sort been celebrating Festivus for years. I sing, I eat, I insult. | December 2005
Simone Swink is a television producer and writer in New York City.
You can visit Allen Salkin at his Web site.