Fiction, Reality, and Minimal Counterintuitiveness: The Truth of Festivus

In my recent piece on Santa, belief, and the violation of “slow epistemology” in traditional religion, I briefly discussed how, in his work De Carne Christi or On the Flesh of Christ, third-century CE Christian Church Father Tertullian sought to defend the Bible against claims mounted by Greek philosophers of his day that it propagated nonsense and violated sound philosophical principles of theology by making recourse to the idea that “the truth is stranger than fiction” lifted from Aristotle’s Rhetoric 2.23.22. Pagan philosophers found the Christian doctrine of not only an incarnate, but indeed a dying, God utter anathema, in that the concept of God had long been held to entail a perfect, self-complete, and necessary entity whose entirely non-contingent being is the ultimate unmoved and unmovable ground or cause of all contingent beings. Tertullian famously wrote prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est (“it is assuredly credible precisely because it seems an ill fit [for the concept of deity]”), a line that would later become twisted by anti-theist thinkers into the parody credo quia absurdum est or “I believe because it is absurd,” but which was likely intended to harken back to Aristotle’s notion that “things which are thought to happen but are incredible…are even more likely to be true; for we only believe in that which is, or that which is probable: if then a thing is incredible and not probable, it will be true; for it is not because it is probable and credible that we think it true.” That is, because we readily accept as true both what is and what is probable, when a source we credit as reputable contains a statement which is both incredible and improbable, we assume such a statement would never have been made were it not also in fact true. Of course, in the case of the Bible, it is precisely the issue of the reputability and integrity (or lack thereof!) of the source that is perhaps most in play in modern-day wrangling over Christian religion. However, by the third century CE, the Good Book had not yet been submitted to the same intensive deconstructionism of Biblical scholarship that we have to live and grapple with today.

Anyway, as an addendum to this discussion, I wish to relate the following. Over coffee a couple of weeks ago, a good friend and particularly wise interlocutor brought up in this connection the work of cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, who explained religious phenomena as the working out of our innate cognitive tendencies to see agentive causality in everything, whether seen or unseen. Boyer also famously argued that religious concepts are memorable, compelling, and tend to “stick” because they are what he called “minimally counterintuitive” or even “counterontological,” meaning that they violate expectation as to ontological categories and assumptions in a minimal way. Once a conception violates too many such expectations and moves from being minimally to maximally counterintuitive, our tendency to credit it drops off rapidly, and we just either revile it as a hybrid monster or else hold it up to scorn and ridicule. Enter Seinfeld and the memorable, evil twin anti-Christ…mas holiday created by George Costanza’s father and dubbed Festivus.

“The Strike,” the 166th episode of the hit 1990’s NBC sitcom Seinfeld and tenth episode of the show’s ninth and final season, originally aired on December 18, 1997. Just in time for Christmas that year, the episode featured as a prominent element of its plot line the invented secular holiday called Festivus that character George Costanza’s father Frank created as an antidote and alternative to the family pressures and hyper-commercialism of Christmas. Instead of a tree decked out with lights and ornaments for December 25th, Festivus involved an unadorned aluminum pole erected before a family dinner held on the 23rd. Instead of the usual forced conviviality stretching the bonds of already strained familial relations at such a meal, Festivus prominently involved Frank “airing grievances” which he had nurtured like grudges against family members for the entirety of the preceding year and demanding that his son attempt to pin him during the “feats of strength” portion of the evening. The tagline for neo-holiday and episode alike was “A Festivus for the Rest of Us,” as though intended to present the ad hoc Festivus-tivity as having been designed for the common, downtrodden man. (Ironically, the nature of the “tradition” and its festivities only served to further the extent to which the already downtrodden fictional son George felt put upon for his whole life!) As so often happens, however—indeed as Aristotle enshrined in principle in his discussion in Rhetoric—the truth behind both the slogan and the idea of Festivus is altogether stranger than the fiction of the Seinfeld episode implied. Moreover, the reason the show’s creators and writers altered the truth of it was precisely to bring the incredible implausibility of that reality more in line with a concept like minimal counterintuitiveness from Boyer’s theorizing.

Television writer and producer Dan O’Keefe cowrote the “Strike” episode, and the Festivus celebration he reluctantly included in it was actually the very real creation of his own father, author Daniel O’Keefe, in 1966, the same year in which Anton LaVey gave birth to his own outward expression of novel religiosity in the form of the Church of Satan. Dan O’Keefe relates how the real Festivus originally meant to somehow commemorate the anniversary of his dad’s first date with his mother and was not, in fact, bound to the single date of December 23rd. Rather it “could happen at any time, so there was always a sense of impending doom.” O’Keefe continued his reminiscence: 

“I did try to escape once. It was a floating holiday, it actually didn’t have a set date in real life, you could have it at any time. The only warning we got was coming home and getting off the school bus, and there was weird shit on the walls and strange music being played. But sometimes he [Dad] said, ‘It’s starting to look a lot like Festivus,’ in a sort of ominous voice. That usually meant it’s going to happen in the next hour. One year I couldn’t hack it, so I ran down to my friend’s house and when I came back they held it for me.”

What’s more, the true symbol of the real Festivus was not an unadorned aluminum pole, like some ugly dystopian rendering of the standard Christmas tree, but rather the far stranger “clock inside a bag nailed to the wall and nearby a sign that says, ‘Fuck Fascism.’” A nice touch, that, but, sadly, one that “doesn’t fly on network TV.” In another interview about the real origins of Festivus, O’Keefe recalled that his father would never tell him why a clock nailed to the wall, noting that it was “never the same bag, rarely the same clock, but always the same wall.” When asked, O’Keefe Sr. would simply respond: “That’s not for you to know.” And so the gnosis went unrevealed.

The slogan “Festivus for the rest us” emerged from similarly strange and even macabre origins, as O’Keefe recalled that “[e]ach Festivus had a theme, which were [sic] always depressing. One was, ‘Is there light at the end of the tunnel?’ ‘Are we too easily made glad?’ was one, I believe. My grandmother died the next year and it was ‘A Festivus for the Rest of Us,’ meaning the living and not the departed. It’s pretty goddamn weird.” Far from a plug for the common man, the “rest of us” slogan really intended a nod to those left standing after the scything harvest of death. Heavy. 

When you learn that Dan O’Keefe’s father, Daniel O’Keefe, also authored a ponderous 1982 tome presenting a sociological, anthropological, and psychological exploration of the place of magic in society entitled Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, some of the pieces of his peculiar Festivus puzzle begin to fall into place. In the book, the elder O’Keefe defined magic as “the expropriation of religious collective representations for individual or subgroup purposes—to enable the individual ego to resist psychic extinction….” Expropriating religious representations for individual or subgroup purposes and heroically resisting extinction of the individual psyche in the face of the depredations of time form core elements of the Festivus complex. Think: the clock nailed to the wall  beside an anti-fascist slur, the “rest of us” still remaining among the living. They’re also the same elements that both creeped out the younger O’Keefe and made him feel like a social pariah forced to bear entombed within himself the grim, bizarre secret of his family’s unique holiday celebration for the duration of an awkward childhood and uncomfortable adolescence.   

Ultimately, Seinfeld writers and producers decided that “the reality of the holiday was too peculiar to show on television,” so aspects of Festivus were altered so as not to overly strain credulity. But, intriguingly, it was precisely the incredible reality of the celebration that made it a “must do” for the show’s creators once O’Keefe’s younger brother spilled the beans to them about his family’s secret. Show writer Jeff Schaffer commented: 

“That’s the thing with Seinfeld stories, the real ones are always the best ones. You can almost always tell, ‘Oh, that really happened to you,’ when people would pitch stories. There’s a nuance to reality sometimes that is just perfect. We could have sat in a room for a billion years and we never would have made up Festivus. It’s crazy and hilarious and just so funny and so disturbing. It’s awesome, we gotta put it on television.”

And so, as we enter upon a new year which, in the absence of Nietzschean Eternal Return, is bound to have more than a little of the surreal and even absurd about it—hell knows this past year sure did!—let us turn our thoughts to the improbable reality of Festivus and its peculiar, morbid, but also strangely life-affirming celebrations. In 2019, I hope you manage to remain among the “rest of us” still living, nailing cruel, fascist time to the wall and forcing it to account for its relentless, remorseless march. Don’t shy away from airing some grievances now and again—with yourself and others—for it’s by finding and identifying faults that we uncover opportunities for change and growth. And, finally, show some real strength in the new year; perform a few powerful feats now and again. Due the government shutdown, the light at the end of the tunnel may have been shut off until further notice, and—yes—we are indeed very much too easily made glad. But in an absurdist, fleeting material reality that can leave us all feeling more than a little destabilized, we could all use a reminder of what peculiar magical powers are in fact still left to us common, striving folk.    

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