Book Review: Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (2005)

As Festivus approaches (Dec. 23), today is also the anniversary of the December 18, 1997, airing of the Seinfeld episode that gave the “holiday” its current renown in popular culture. In honor of that anniversary, I am going to invoke a Festivus tradition a tad early — the Airing of Grievances. My grievance is directed at Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, a book that bills itself as the Festivus “book you cannot do without!” Not only does it come nowhere close to such bragging rights, the book simply does not truly engage the spirit of Festivus.

For those who may not know, Festivus is a non-denominational holiday which, on Seinfeld, was begun by Frank Costanza in reaction to a struggle with another father over the last of a popular doll in a toy store one Christmas. His theme for a new holiday becomes this book’s title. At least in the Costanza household, Festivus has a couple hallmarks: the Festivus pole, a plain aluminum pole; the Airing of Grievances, in which participants tell how their family or friends disappointed them in the past year; and, Feats of Strength, which in that episode meant Frank had to be pinned to the floor before the celebration was concluded.

Festivus struck a responsive chord with those who are rather fed up with the hubbub and commercialization of the Christmas season and the fact it now seems to start right after Halloween each year. Festivus seemed a wonderfully sardonic counterpart. And that is where this book falls down. Instead of taking a tongue-in-cheek look at Festivus, the book takes a straightforward and very dry approach. It does not utilize any of the comedic flair from Seinfeld other than to have a foreword by Jerry Stiller, who played Frank Costanza.

Granted, some may be intrigued to learn that Festivus has a historical origin and basis. Others also may not have previously learned the background of how Festivus ended up as a Seinfeld holiday. But maybe these discussions seem interesting simply by comparison to the balance of the book.

Do we really want a matter-of-fact recounting of how some people in various parts of the US and Canada have celebrated the holiday? Is it more than mildly interesting, if that, to know that one family “pitches washers” in the back yard as part of their Festivus celebration, another uses a vacuum cleaner for the Festivus pole and still another group writes their grievances on a dry erase board on the refrigerator? Do we really care that a woman in Springfield, Ill., named herself Miss Festivus on her 30th birthday last December and that her boyfriend is the editor of a car magazine (picture of magazine cover included)? Do we really want or need the stories of three different cats named Festivus?

If all this were made up there is an outside chance it might be humorous. But the author tells us, “Everything in this book is 100 percent true. This is all real.”

The book recognizes that one of the main purposes and attractions of Festivus is to “mock the clich├ęs of other holidays.” Sadly, the irony and satire inherent in Festivus and its traditions seem sorely lacking here. Instead, the book’s take on Festivus is as plain as the Festivus pole itself.

The Airing of Grievances is intended to help provide a form of holiday release. As the book notes, it can also cause participants to become ornery and the Feats of Strength allow for discharge of that orneriness. As the airing of my grievance has not fully assuaged my disappointment, my Feat of Strength this year shall be to hurl this book as far as possible.

[I]t is no mere coincidence that wrestling and other fury-absorbing Feats of Strength generally follow immediately after the AOG.

Allen Salkin, Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us

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