A Festivus for the rest of us

KU alumna, others embrace 'Seinfeld'-inspired holiday

Chances are your holiday traditions have nothing to do with gathering around an aluminum pole, telling your family and friends what you like least about them and then wrestling them to the floor.

But for a surprising number of people across the country, these pastimes are as much seasonal greetings as Christmas trees and menorahs.

It’s all in the spirit of Festivus, a holiday introduced to popular culture during a Dec. 18, 1997, episode of “Seinfeld.” Weary of the rampant consumerism of Christmas, Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) invents a new holiday to be celebrated Dec. 23. He explains his epiphany to Kramer.

Frank: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reach for the last one they had – but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way!

Kramer: What happened to the doll?

Kansas University alumna Julianne Donovan, center, invites guests to thumb wrestle at her annual Festivus party. The less-dangerous ritual takes the place of actual wrestling, which was a component of the Festivus celebration made popular in a 1997 Seinfeld episode.

Frank: It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us!

Little did the writers know the episode would spark an underground movement complete with tailor-made carols and recipes, inventive feats of strength, Miss Festivus pageants and even a limited-edition flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

According to Allen Salkin, author of the just-published “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us” (Warner Books, $14.95) the best Festivus party in the country takes place just down the interstate at Kansas University alumna Julianne Donovan’s house.

“Julianne ran with it better than anybody else,” he says. “People have added creative twists to most of the basic elements of the holiday. … Julianne just brought a dose of inspired creativity to all of the rituals that just really makes her party better than any others I’ve come across.”

Thumb wrestling and hula hoops

The book, with a forward written by Jerry Stiller, features Donovan prominently. She’s noted mostly for her “unorthodox feats of strength.” The “Seinfeld” formula holds that Festivus can’t end until someone pins the head of the household to the floor. But Donovan devised a more civilized approach.

An aluminum pole takes the place of the traditional Christmas tree in Festivus celebrations.

“I really didn’t want people to wrestle on my floor. As much fun as that might be, there could be some bloody noses,” she says. “I came up with thumb wrestling. … I built this wrestling ring with elastic ropes and everything. Then I made little masks out of the thumbs of gloves.

“People go crazy when they get in the ring. They come up with their own names, and the smack talking begins.”

Another challenge at parties hosted by Donovan, a 31-year-old graphic designer, involves guests dunking their heads under ice water. Whoever holds their breath the longest wins a pair of handcuffs. Or guests can challenge one another to see who can hold a 3-pound weight straight out to the side of their body for the longest time.

And then there’s the hula hoop contest. Not your typical sock-hop variety duel, contestants are judged on endurance AND dexterity.

“The more you do while you’re hula hooping, the more cheers you get,” says Donovan, who graduated from KU in 1999. “I definitely do not condone smoking, but I have several friends who smoke, so smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, talking on the cell phone – that’s all encouraged while hula hooping. Because, you know, it makes you look way cooler if you can hula hoop and be doing all these other things at the same time.”

National notoriety

Donovan’s heralded Festivus parties – which usually take place in February to avoid the holiday rush – won her an invitation to take part in a November release party for Salkin’s Festivus book at a Barnes and Noble in New York, where Jerry Stiller was the guest of honor.

She made a deluxe wrestling ring especially for the occasion, but Stiller couldn’t lock thumbs with her because of a torn rotator cuff.

“So I thumb wrestled his wife, Anne Meara. I showed her the costumes, and she was like, ‘Oh, these are kinky,'” Donovan says. “She gets in there and I wrestle her, and she claims that I’d cheated, which I really had not. She just wasn’t ready for my powerful thumb.

“She’s telling the crowd how I cheated, and I said, ‘Hey, Anne, less talking, more wrestling. Let’s go!’ So she turned around and basically pulled out a can of Anne Meara whoop-ass, and she said, ‘I’m playing by New York rules now!’ She took me down for the count.

“So I gave Jerry a used tube of ChapStick.”

Donovan estimates that about 300 people showed up for the book signing – a good omen for Salkin, who believes he’s been onto something big since he wrote a Festivus article for The New York Times last December.

Guests at Julianne Donovan's Festivus party challenge one another in one of several feats of strength characteristic of the holiday. This one tests who can hold a 3-pound weight straight out to the side of the their body for the longest time.

“After that story ran, I started hearing from more and more people who were actually celebrating Festivus,” the freelance investigative reporter says. “I get this feeling in the middle of my rib cage when I know I’m onto something good. … I felt like and continue to feel like a guy who discovered punk rock in 1975 when no one else was writing about it. There’s this whole subculture out there.”

Long history

“Seinfeld’s” George Costanza (Jason Alexander) would be devastated to hear that Festivus has caught on.

“It’s a stupid holiday my father invented. It doesn’t exist!” he insists in the 1997 episode. But, in fact, the holiday did exist before “Seinfeld.” Roman comic poet Plautus used the word Festivus to name the wild celebrations attended by common folk back in the third century B.C.

More recently, Daniel O’Keefe, the father of one of the show’s writers, had coined Festivus in 1966, inventing many of the traditions later included in the “Seinfeld” episode, including the airing of grievances.

This component was enacted around the Festivus dinner table on “Seinfeld,” but Salina native Donovan has altered the procedure. She asks partygoers to write down their grievances and put them inside the Festivus pole. Then the complaints are read aloud at the end of the night.

Airing grievances might seem counter to the holiday spirit. But Perry resident Chris Girard, Donovan’s mom, says it’s all in good fun. She attended her first Festivus party at her daughter’s house last year and wasn’t at all surprised that she had a great time.

Another of Donovan's feats of strength requires guests to see who can hold their head under ice water the longest.

“She’s been creative since she was a little girl,” Girard says. “When she was little, my mom made her a Wonder Woman outfit. She had a truth rope. Her big sister and I were always the bad guys. She’d put the truth rope around us and make us tell her the truth.”

A holiday for everyone

Author Salkin emphasizes that Festivus doesn’t presume to replace Christmas, Hanukkah or any other religious celebration. But it does allow people from all walks of life to celebrate together.

“Besides Jews and Christians, there’s lots of different folks here,” he says. “And if you want to have a party in which no one feels excluded, you can have a Festivus.”

And for those who find the whole idea utterly odd, Salkin points out that Festivus traditions are not that far afield from what most of us already do every winter.

“Is there anybody alive who doesn’t fight with their family on Christmas? And what usually happens after the vocal arguments with your family? Generally a bunch of guys will go outside and play football or engage in a very spirited game of foosball in the basement,” Salkin says.

“People want to believe the holidays are these warm, cheery times with some fat guy in a red suit, but in point of fact the holidays already are full of the airing of grievances and the feats of strength.”

“People are always worried about telling people what they really think,” he continues. “But at the end of the night, everybody feels better about each other.”