Did You Know That Festivus Has Westchester Roots?

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Learn more about the origins of Festivus, the holiday created by a Westchester resident and popularized on Seinfeld.

Break out the tinsel-free aluminum pole from the crawl space, as this month officially marks the silver anniversary of Festivus, a celebration of petty grievances, tests of strength, and meatloaf dinners that originated in the fertile mind of an eccentric Westchester man, then spread across the land by the gospel of his disciples — the comedy writers of Seinfeld.

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For so it was written 25 years go in Episode 10, Season 9:

FRANK COSTANZA: 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!

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KRAMER: What happened to the doll?

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

KRAMER: That musta been some kind of doll.

FRANK: She was.

The evolution of Festivus is convoluted and requires more space to explain than allotted here. (For more, you may consult the online scriptures, as well as the full Seinfeld script.) The holiday was invented by Dan O’Keefe, who for many years was an editor at Reader’s Digest in Pleasantville. A true scholar, O’Keefe supposedly knew 40 foreign tongues — among them Swahili and Tagalog. According to his 2012 obituary in The New York Times, he would patronize a Chappaqua bar and “speak multiple languages with his wife and anyone who would listen.” He also wrote a critically acclaimed book on cults, astrology, and the paranormal (perhaps an important clue to the creation of Festivus).

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Anyway, Festivus was born in the 1960s, when O’Keefe wanted to mark the anniversary of the first date with his wife, Deborah. The holiday went from simple celebratory Champagne toasts to a growing assortment of oddball, family-fun rituals that required the full participation of O’Keefe’s three sons. Though Festivus is generally observed on December 23 as an antidote to commercialism, it could fall on any day of the year in the O’Keefe household, depending on the whims of the old man.

Flash-forward a decade or so, to the ascent of Seinfeld, where O’Keefe’s oldest son, also named Dan, had become a member of the show’s writing staff. By this time, the annual tradition of the O’Keefe family was no more than a mothballed, if not repressed, memory of childhood. However, when the other writers found out about Festivus, they saw the potential hilarity in it and couldn’t resist putting it in an episode.

Phil Reisman Seinfeld
Photo by Stefan Radtke

On December 18, 1997, a new secular holiday permeated the national consciousness, a perfect gift to pop culture from “a show about nothing.”

And so, on December 18, 1997, a new secular holiday permeated the national consciousness, a perfect gift to pop culture from “a show about nothing.”

Naturally, Festivus is celebrated in the spirit of irony and usually in private… but not always. For several years, it has been publicly observed by the Free Thinkers of Hastings-on-Hudson, whose “freedom from religion” message includes the traditional aluminum pole placed at a local park, between a créche and a menorah.

No fewer than three books have been written about the Festivus phenomenon, including The Real Festivus: The True Story Behind America’s Favorite Made-up Holiday, which was written by Dan Jr.

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After a quarter-century of giving interviews, O’Keefe, 54, is tired of Festivus.

“I’m really flattered that anyone is still interested in that ridiculous holiday after all this time,” he told me via email. “I have talked about it a ton already, probably more than I should have, and right now my feeling is that I don’t think people are really interested in me flapping my yap about it again.”

He did clear up one minor mystery, however. Depending on what you read, the O’Keefe home was either in the town of Mount Pleasant or in Chappaqua, a hamlet inside the neighboring town of New Castle. So where exactly was Festivus invented? I had money riding on the answer.

O’Keefe told me that his father falsely insisted they lived in Chappaqua; they actually resided in the unincorporated area of Mount Pleasant.

“But my dad was obsessed with Chappaqua,” O’Keefe says. “It was a rich town, and he did not grow up remotely rich, as he continually reminded us. So, he essentially willed us into living in Chappaqua. He would always shout at us, ‘Say you’re from Chappaqua; it sounds classier!’”

This proves nothing except that a hamlet is ultimately a state of mind — sort of like Festivus itself.

Anyhow, I won the bet. Hillary, you owe me 10 bucks.

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