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  • Lily Muhlbaum

Why I Celebrate Festivus Each Holiday Season

I hate the holiday season- mostly. I wince when Christmas music turns on and make snide comments to my family members when they try to wrap gifts in anything but old newspapers. Valuing physical objects and someone's prowess (or lack thereof) to choose the perfect gift doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve let my hate for consumerism overtake my ability to celebrate what should be a joyful time.

Part of my anti-holiday spirit is also a mask for my confusion behind which holiday I should even celebrate. My mom’s Jewish, and my dad’s a halfsie. When you factor in my atheism, it makes my decisions a bit more complicated. My mom grew up in one of the few Jewish families in her area, and she claims that all of the holiday commercials she watched on TV made her want to decorate Christmas cookies and put up a tree. Instead, she lit the Menorah and watched her friends come into school after the holiday break with new toys and clothes. My dad grew up with a Christmas tree and attended the River Road Unitarian Universalist Church. His father, a Holocaust survivor, chose not to engage with his Jewish identity when he got to the United States following the immense anti-semitism he experienced in Germany. Some of his disinterest in religious observation trickled down into my dad, and even into me.

Because of both of my parents' diffidence to religion, I haven’t been raised with the traditions and practices of a typical Jewish family, other than excess bagel consumption and Maccabeat music. Most years, though, we manage to pull out our oldest family relic: the red, yellow, and blue ceramic Menorah that I painted at All Fired Up when I was about six years old. Some years we also have a Christmas tree (topped with a carrot or star of David rather than the typical angel). But my favorite holiday tradition is neither during the eight nights of Hanukkah nor on December 25th. It is celebrated on December 23rd. This is the holiday known as Festivus.

Lily Muhlbaum: 2015 Celebration of Festivus with our neighbors

Festivus is a fictional, secular holiday created by the father of Daniel O’Keefe, the writer of the popular 90’s sitcom “Seinfeld”. O'Keefe grew up celebrating this make-shift holiday and incorporated it into his show in the 1997 episode “The Strike.” Festivus aims to combat the commercialization and materialism of the holiday season. It is the perfect holiday for any cynic.

My dad was the catalyst for my family’s Festivus festivities. A longtime Seinfeld fan, atheist, and odd, quirky guy, my dad found Festivus to be the perfect holiday for him. For the past ten years, we’ve blocked off December 23rd on our calendar, invited friends and celebrated the tidings of Festivus.

One of my favorite Festivus traditions is the airing of grievances. It’s the one chance throughout the entire year to tell people how they have disappointed you. This event can get a little testy, so make sure to clear the table of butter knives before you start bashing your friends and family. One year, when my family celebrated, we instead chose to air our grievances about the political leaders we detested rather than each other in attempts to keep things less personal.

Another gruesome Festivus event is the Feats of Strength. Typically, this activity consists of wrestling opponents, selected by the head of the household. For no reason other than that our head of household, my dog Ernie, cannot easily choose the opponents, my family creates our own Feat of Strength. Each adversary must stand on one leg and joust their opponent with a sword (typically some sort of cardboard tube). The first person to put down their foot loses. My sister, though generally uncoordinated, manages to win quite often, so don’t just assume this is a test of physical strength. It requires immense focus and strategy.

Lily Muhlbaum: Festivus Pole circa 2017

Another element to the Festivus folklore is the Festivus pole. Crafted out of aluminum, a classic Festivus pole “requires no decoration” according to Frank Costanza, the character who introduces this holiday on “Seinfeld”. Festivus has become so mainstream that you can now even purchase a Festivus pole on Amazon. But I think that defeats Festivus’ anti-consumerism ideology. Luckily, my dad agrees, and each year, he whips out his handy glue gun and concocts blueprints for the best Festivus pole yet. One year he used empty, aluminum cans wrapped in tin foil. Another time he repurposed a coat rack he had scavenged from the side of the road. It is always a surprise to see what he comes up with.

This year, my family will be in Vermont on the day of Festivus. But my dad has not let our trip impede his Festivus traditions. He plans to bring one of his homemade Festivus poles north and display it in the ski lodge. He said that the chances of it being permitted after its discovery are slim, but he’s willing to take the risk. Along with a good laugh, he wants to share the holiday with others because, after all, the trademark phrase for this holiday is “festivus for the rest of us.”

Festivus has become a uniting force for holiday gatherings with our friends of different religions and traditions. Though the origins are mainly satirical, Festivus has become my family’s favorite holiday tradition. Watching our friends experience the joys of Festivus for the first time is almost as special as wacking my sister with a cardboard tube. If you like off-beat, weird rituals and you enjoy delivering witty, degrading slams to your family members, Festivus is for you.



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