Move over, o Christmas tree, and make way for the Festivus pole.
What started as a “Seinfeld” storyline has become not only an emerging holiday, but a trendy political statement.
The holiday’s key features – an aluminum pole in place of a tree, feats of strength instead of carols by the fire, an airing of grievances instead of a gift exchange – seem to resonate with a cynical America. Many are glad there is, thanks to Frank Costanza, “a Festivus for the rest of us.”
You know the story by now. Festivus is a secular holiday that provides an alternative to Christmas’ commercialism, and is celebrated Dec. 23. Introduced on “Seinfeld” in 1997, it originally was a family tradition of scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe. Families gather around the unadorned Festivus pole to list the gripes and disappointments accumulated over the past year, and possibly wrestle each other into submission. But on the bright side, seemingly everyday coincidences go down as “Festivus miracles.”
“Hey, Uncle Milt stayed sober until dessert: It’s a Festivus miracle!”
Before you knew it, people were building – and selling – aluminum Festivus poles, and the faux holiday was off and running.
The fad didn’t seem likely to last once “Seinfeld” wrapped. But the show – and the holiday it spawned – live on thanks to syndication. But it isn’t just a novelty anymore: Festivus is becoming a political statement.
In the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, a silver pole appears between two nativity scenes. A sign attached to it says there will be an airing of grievances over the noon hour Monday. However, there will be no feats of strength “due to liability issues.” We’d probably lose half our state legislators in a partisan brawl.
Atheists around the country have adopted Festivus because it offers a lighthearted way to make a point about religious freedom. Advocates have erected Festivus poles alongside public displays of crèches and menorahs. Now if only they could find a way to protest the music of Andy Williams.
In Florida, a 6-foot Festivus pole made of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans is going up in the state Capitol in protest of the recent placement of a nativity scene. Chaz Stevens said his Festivus pole will make a statement about the need for the separation of church and state. He compared the pole with the Florida Prayer Network’s nativity scene as “my ridiculous statement versus what I consider, as an atheist, as their ridiculous statement.”
Thankfully, protest groups are using humor, rather than lawsuits, to make a point. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has a display at the Wisconsin Capitol that features Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain as the three wise men, and the Statue of Liberty and an astronaut as angels.
You’d think such irreverence would offend the reverends, and anyone else who holds Christmas sacred. But everyone seems ready to accept Festivus poles and other secular displays. “It’s fine. It’s a diverse state,” Gov. Scott Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I think it’s a reflection of the many different wonderful traditions in the state of Wisconsin.”
Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, was equally magnanimous, saying such displays call attention to her group’s message. “It’s their right, they have a right to exercise freedom of speech,” she told the Florida News Service. “That’s what America is about.”
All of this agree-to-disagree harmony is hardly indicative of the Festivus spirit. Where is the airing of grievances? The gripes, the listing of disappointments?
Perhaps everyone in this fight is saving their energy for the feats of strength.