Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

Early this month, as a Nativity display was erected in the state house of Olympia, Washington, another sign was making the news. A purported "atheist" sign was erected there, not in order to celebrate anything, but to proclaim "there are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell." The sign did refer obliquely to the Winter Solistice, which is both a natural phenomeneon and a pagan holiday. And few people dispute that Christmas is suspiciously timed in relation to this event and the pagan holiday known as Yule or Saturnalia. But the timing of New Year's Day is just as coincidental. And the fact remains that the Nativity scene, presumably erected by Christians, did not feature a sign arguing that atheists will burn in hell. Nor have prior menorahs come with disclaimers proclaiming gentiles to be unclean.

Of course, this contrarian sign, displayed with the sole intent of annoying Christians (it did not criticize jihad, ouija or circumcision) was promptly stolen. And that made headlines too. Although I am not a believer, I have stated elsewhere that, in the words of Camille Paglia, I find that "atheism alone is a rotten corpse." There are an infinite number of things in which we don't believe. I don't care what you don't believe, just as much as I find it unhelpful, when planning a trip, to have a list of places that you are not interested in visiting. Life is too short to focus on the negative. We are born happy. But some of us spend an aweful lot of time trying to be unhappy.

One thing that I have long enjoyed is the classic sit-com, Seinfeld. In the episode "The Strike" George Costanza, one of the most eagerly miserable of characters in the history of comedy, is caught in one of his schemes, and in order to exculpate himself he ends up inviting his boss to dinner not for Christmas, but for his family's peculiar celebrations of Festivus, a holiday "for the rest of us." The episode is in part a sendup of the modern Political Correction of the Christmas season. The fact that the largest holiday of the Western year is for some people a holy day has become an excuse for the most awkward self-abasement and circumlocution. Festivus is portrayed as the sort of actually embarrassing holiday, with its feats of strength and its airing of grievances, which you might think the celebration of Jesus' birthday would have to be for people to be so fervent in their desire to avoid naming it.

This made-up holiday is so bizarre, and so appropriate for George and his disfunctional family, that you might think that it was invented specifically for Seinfeld. But it turns out that Seinfeld writer Daniel O'Keefe's father Dan had actually created Festivus in 1966 as a commemoration of his first date with his future wife. The original holiday, celebrated in February, did not feature an aluminum pole – a symbolically denuded Christmas tree. On Seinfeld, celebrants had a chance to tell off everybody who had annoyed them during the year. And the hellish holiday didn't end until someone pinned the head of the household in a wrestling match. If you want to know how the original feast was celebrated, you can read O'Keefe's book, The Real Festivus.

Festivus has entered the culture. There is also a book called Festivus, a Holiday for the Rest of Us, which deals with the mainstreaming of this celebration. And in 2008, in Illinois (but apparently not Washington) a Festivus pole was erected in the Capitol rotunda. Maybe two thousand years from now Jerry Seinfeld will be the patron saint of comedy. Maybe not. But at least, unlike the cheerless naysayers in Olympia, he knew how to laugh.

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