Seinfeld: The True Story Behind Frank Costanza’s Festivus Holiday

Seinfeld's iconic Festivus holiday from Frank Costanza is actually based on the real-life childhood celebration of show writer Dan O'Keefe.

Frank Costanza’s Festivus holiday has become one of the most iconic aspects of Seinfeld’s sitcom, though it’s unbelievably based on the real-life holiday from a Seinfeld writer’s childhood. The writers of Seinfeld often agree that the funniest bits from the show come from real-life occurrences, such as the iconic season 7 “The Rye” episode or Larry David’s “Big Salad” experience. Considering Festivus is one of the most ridiculously fun holiday concepts, it’s no wonder it came from a Seinfeld writer’s own childhood—this isn’t something they could make up in the writer’s room. Producers also mentioned that they could have spent years in Seinfeld’s writing room and never have come up with Festivus, which is a testament to the cleverness of writer Dan O’Keefe’s father, who penned the holiday.

In Seinfeld season 9 episode, “The Strike,” the gang prepares to celebrate Christmas as Jerry dates a sometimes attractive woman, Elaine tries to reclaim her sandwich reward card, Kramer is rehired at his old bagel shop, and Jason Alexander’s George Costanza convinces his boss that he celebrates his father’s holiday, Festivus, instead of Christmas. While Frank Costanza’s Festivus storyline was meant to be a minor side story of the episode, it ended up becoming one of the most iconic bits in sitcom history. Instead of celebrating Christmas, Frank reinstates his holiday, which involves an airing of grievances, feats of strength, a celebratory dinner, and a decorative aluminum pole (with no tinsel, Frank finds that distracting).

Since Seinfeld’s 1997 episode, Festivus has become an annual secular celebration in the real world, typically used to either pay tribute to Seinfeld or break away from the commercialization of Christmas. Festivus has also become pervasive in pop culture, often used in commercials, alt-Christmas celebrations, and even political fundraisers. As Festivus is now annually celebrated on December 23 around the world, here’s a helpful breakdown of the true story behind Seinfeld’s iconic Festivus episode.

Festivus Is Based On A Seinfeld Writer’s Real-Life Holiday Celebration

As outrageous as the holiday is, Festivus is based on the true celebration from Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe’s childhood, as crafted by his father. According to Uproxx, Festivus was originally made up by his father, American writer Daniel O’Keefe, in 1966 as a way to annually celebrate his first date with his wife. While the reason behind Festivus’ celebration was heartwarming, the practices and customs of the holiday became increasingly bizarre, turning it into the strange holiday that would become popularized by Seinfeld. O’Keefe and his family continued to celebrate Festivus throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, though was later relieved to have left the odd holiday in his past. Not only were there idiosyncratic rituals, but there was also always a theme to each annual Festivus, such as “is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” or “are we too easily made glad?” As bizarre as Seinfeld’s George Costanza holiday is in the series, nearly every aspect of its practices and true meaning pull from Dan O’Keefe’s childhood.

How Seinfeld’s Traditions Compare To The Real Festivus

While Festivus typically occurred around December, the holiday never had a set date like in Seinfeld. George Costanza’s family celebrated Festivus every year on December 23, whereas O’Keefe recalls trying to escape around the holidays because it could happen at any time unexpectedly, typically between the months of September and May. Seinfeld’s writer even remembers one instance in which he came home from the school bus to find weird music playing and odd relics on the wall, while his father ominously remark, “It’s starting to look a lot like Festivus.” Perhaps the most iconic aspect of the episode toward Seinfeld’s season 9 ending is the key decorative centerpiece: An aluminum pole with a strong height-to-weight ratio. Interestingly, there was no aluminum pole in O’Keefe’s holiday, as his family’s core decorations were a clock and a bag (or sometimes a clock in a bag nailed to the wall) with a nearby sign that read “F*** Fascism.” While this symbol was far odder than the aluminum pole, it makes sense that Seinfeld adjusted it to pass TV network censorship.

Frank Costanza has several custom practices each year at Festivus, many of which have been adopted in some Seinfeld fans’ own lives. O’Keefe’s family always celebrated Festivus with a dinner feast, but his family would eat ham or turkey rather than Seinfeld’s red meatloaf-ish entree on lettuce served by George’s mother Estelle. The gathering would also include the airing of grievances, in which Frank and the rest of the celebrators go around the room and yell at each person about the problems they have with them. Seinfeld season 9’s airing of grievances was all too real in O’Keefe’s Festivus, but these issues were put onto a tape recorder to listen to at their leisure. Not included in Seinfeld, however, was that the O’Keefe children were also made to sing songs they learned at school into the tape recorder, all of which still exist and are kept in a secure location for the family.

Festivus for George Costanza’s Seinfeld character notably only ended after the feats of strength, which involved having to wrestle and pin the head of the table to the ground. The real Festivus, which began around the time O’Keefe was 8 years old, didn’t actually include feats of strength from Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom, so there was no declaration to “stop crying and wrestle [his] father.” O’Keefe says the only time he and his brothers wrestled his father on Festivus was when they were actively trying to avoid celebrating, so his father would chase them around and bring them back inside. While Frank and O’Keefe’s father seem to share some eccentric similarities, the feats of strength were entirely made up for Seinfeld.

What “A Festivus For The Rest Of Us” Really Means

In Seinfeld’s season 9 episode “The Strike,” Frank continually declares “a Festivus for the rest of us” when explaining the holiday’s meaning. While Festivus’ name was taken from the Latin for “joyous, holiday, and feast day,” the title in O’Keefe’s holiday had simply popped into his father’s head and stuck. But, Seinfeld‘s TV gag seemed to have reverted back to its Latin origins in the “Festivus for the rest of us” phrase, as Frank’s declaration essentially implies it to mean a celebration for the “rest of us” who don’t want to celebrate Christmas. In Festivus’ real inspirational holiday, “a Festivus for the rest of us” was indeed a recurring phrase, but referred to O’Keefe’s departed grandmother. The “rest of us” was referring to those still alive after the death of his grandmother in 1976, so it is meant to signify the living as opposed to Seinfeld’s version referring to those sick of Christmas’s commercialization.

Why O’Keefe Originally Didn’t Want Festivus In Seinfeld

While George Costanza isn’t necessarily O’Keefe in Seinfeld’s season 9 episode, the writer did have a very similar reaction to Festivus as Jason Alexander’s character. As previously mentioned, O’Keefe would intentionally try to avoid being home for Festivus, just as George actively rejected Frank Costanza’s holiday. Similarly, O’Keefe recalls trying to repress Festivus from his memory after the annual celebrations had resided, while George tries to forget Frank’s Festivus due to its oddities being “all too real.” As such, O’Keefe originally had no intentions of including his bizarre family holiday in Seinfeld, but was given no choice once his younger brother spilled the details of Festivus to Seinfeld’s executive producers. After the producers found out, they cornered O’Keefe in a restaurant and convinced him to let them adapt it for Seinfeld’s season 9 holiday episode, which he reluctantly agreed to.

At first, Seinfeld’s writer was hesitant because he didn’t want America to know the outrageously eclectic nature of his family. Then, he had the task of letting his mother and father know their bizarre tradition was being put on such an iconic TV show like Seinfeld. O’Keefe initially recalled his father hating the idea as he felt he was being made fun of, though quickly embraced the popularity of Festivus and used it as a way to justify anything he had done in his entire life. Although O’Keefe spent most of his life running away from his problematic memories of Festivus, its inclusion in Seinfeld only worked to memorialize and increase the presence of the holiday, turning it into one of the most popular secular traditions around Christmastime.

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