Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Debate over Festivus

A small debate is raging on the Internet over the worth of celebrating "Festivus" in the wake of a Festivus pole that was put up in the Illinois capital. Critics (e.g. here) say it's not a real holiday because it was invented to mock Christmas. They say it's meaningless, not about anything, indeed, invented in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld ("The Strike"), a show that is itself about nothing (FYI: it was really invented much earlier; read the details on Wikipedia's festivus page).

Most of these critics have in mind some idealized image of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. To wit, "a good, merry winter celebration with the tree, the turkey, and the presents, customs mostly borrowed from pagan traditions." Compare Bill McKibben's description: "Christmas is a school for consumerism—in it we learn to equate delight with materialism. We celebrate the birth of One who told us to give everything to the poor by giving each other motorized tie racks.” This reflects a certain cynicism, but at least it is not blind to the way in which Christmas is super-saturated with the imperative to buy, buy, buy. The point is put with neutral understatement on Wikipedia's page on Christmas: "Christmas has become a major event for many retailers."

Against this frenzy of consumerism Festivus was born according to the Seinfeld episode:
Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached 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.
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!
Festivus, like all holidays, is what you make of it.

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