'Seinfeld's' Festivus Has Some Pretty Dark Roots
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Ahh Festivus, the greatest -- and most Frank Costanzian -- time of year where we give commercial holiday capitalism the finger by donning now our gay apparel – which in this case, happens to be a metal pole – not-so-politely airing our grievances – to paraphrase Jerry Stiller, “we've got a lot of problems with you people, now, you're gonna hear about it” – and kicking our friends and family's asses to snag those sweet, sweet feats of strength.
Amid these joyous (and pretty damn Spartan-esque) celebrations first presented to the world in the Seinfeld's “The Strike," in which George Costanza's father, Frank gets Jerry, Elaine, and the whole gang to embrace the holiday he invented years earlier, it seems the IRL origins of the holiday are actually pretty bleak. During an appearance on The Daily Beast's Fever Dreams podcast last week, Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe revealed the heartbreaking real-life inspiration behind the iconic episode – his father, who invented the holiday long before Seinfeld was even a twinkle in Larry David's eye.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible: My father was an undiagnosed bipolar, severe alcoholic who nonetheless was extremely high-functioning and held down a job as an editor at the Reader’s Digest and had an advanced degree and was extremely erudite,” O'Keefe, whose resume also features writing credits on other popular sitcoms like Veep and Silicon Valley, recalled of his dad. Considering these factors, it seems the first IRL Festivus had origins a bit more amorphous than Frank Costanza realizing that “there had to be a better way” to deal with holiday stress as he “rained blows” upon a fellow shopper while trying to snag a gift for George.
O'Keefe seemed confident that his dad “patterned” the IRL Festivus "after the Roman Saturnalia and some of the other holidays of antiquity," likely to “show that he knew who the Romans were." The rest, however, is a bit muddy, with the writer asserting that the holiday may have been a romantic celebration along the line. “At one point he said it was an anniversary for his first date with my mom," O'Keefe said, noting that his dad “also said a lot of crazy shit... so who knows?”
These respective origin stories aren't the only differences between Festivus's real-life and on-screen iterations. Since its 1997 TV debut, Festivus has become a worldwide, annual festival of anti-capitalism celebrated by Seinfeld fans and those stuck in their midst on December 23. The holiday's IRL inspiration, on the other hand, was a bit more … floating, to use every HR Manager's favorite seasonal adjective.
“It was a holiday that was unique to our family. That was ostensibly a strength," O'Keefe continued, adding that Festivus “didn’t have a set date." “In real life it could just happen whenever the fuck he felt like it, or was extremely hung over and wanted to jump-start his synapses. In one year, there were two for some reason; one year, there were none. You never knew when it was coming,” he said, making us question how many feats of strength one can actually accomplish in one calendar year.
The celebrations, too, also had several contrasting elements. Although the airing of the grievances was definitely true to life with O'Keefe noting that the holiday “was just a very formalized setting for yelling at us,” and that growing up, he his “two brothers were in a form of child abuse that yet wasn’t recognized as such by the state of New York, induced to perform seasonal rituals,” the Festivus pole was pure TV fiction.
Instead of sporting the iconic, minimalist, metal decoration, O'Keefe's dad decided to kick it more symbolically. “There was a nail that he hammered into the wall in the early ’70s. And every year he put a clock into a bag and hung it on the wall. And the symbol of the holiday was a fucking clock in a bag for some reason... was a poem that referred to ‘clock and bag’. And it was rhymed—four-line stanzas with a very complicated rhyme scheme,” he continued.
According to O'Keefe, this poem will probably never see the light of day -- “I don’t have a copy of it somewhere and I will burn it before I share it with anyone, let alone you" – a move it seems his dad would probably appreciate.
“Every time we asked him about , he literally screamed at us," he recalled, noting that his dad would always say “‘That’s not for you to know,’” “So we celebrated this thing and my brothers and I quickly realized you don’t talk about this at school or you get more beatings than you’re already getting.”
One day in the Seinfeld writer's room, however, O'Keefe let his family's secret tradition slip, a tidbit his colleagues clung to knowing it could make for some pretty fascinating sitcom fodder.
“These are not thugs. These are like the head writers of the show," he said. “One of them sits down, so I can’t leave. And they say, ‘Jerry thinks this is hilarious and we want to put it in the show.’" Although O'Keefe says he “tried to dissuade them as convincingly as I could,” telling them “‘I have the greatest love and respect for the show. I don’t think you want to do that to it. It’s done nothing to deserve that,'" it seems his protests were moot, the show's creative team telling him that it could either go in his episode “or someone else's” “So I figure, fuck it, if this has to be smeared onto the world, that I might as well be the hand doing the smearing,” he explained.
And with that, Festivus, the only winter holiday of note, was born in all of its Seinfeld-ian glory.
Top Image: Netflix/NBC