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Is Festivus losing its true spirit?

Fans of the faux holiday that became famous on 'Seinfeld' worry it's becoming too commercial.

December 25, 2008|Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO — The merry band of entrepreneurs behind FriendFeed transformed the online service into "FestivusFeed" last year to celebrate the faux Christmastime holiday that became famous on an episode of "Seinfeld."

Instead of posting comments, FriendFeed users were invited to air grievances. So, in the spirit of the season, FriendFeed founder Paul Buchheit griped: "Festivus is being co-opted by profit-seeking corporations, and we're losing the true spirit of the holiday."

With FriendFeed exploiting Festivus to promote itself, "the comment was, of course, meant to be ironic," Buchheit said Wednesday.

But are corporate grinches really out to steal Festivus? The anti-holiday is starting to look a bit like, well, Christmas.

In the seminal Seinfeld show 11 years ago, George Costanza's father, Frank, tells Kramer he invented the holiday when he found himself battling for a doll with another Christmas shopper and coined the slogan "A Festivus for the rest of us."

It's marked each year on Dec. 23 with an aluminum pole instead of a tree, and celebrants air grievances and compete in feats of strength instead of exchanging gifts. The holiday ends when the head of the household is wrestled to the floor and pinned.

The "Seinfeld" writer who introduced Festivus to the masses was Dan O'Keefe, whose father came up with the holiday in the mid-1960s. The story line had the staying power of "yada yada yada," "not that there is anything wrong with that" and other uniquely Seinfeldian observances. It gained a loyal following on YouTube and in ritual celebrations in businesses and homes across the country because it's Spartan, secular and just plain silly.

But it also picked up a new sidekick: corporate America.

The television gag has turned into the marketing gimmick that keeps on giving for Milwaukee's Wagner Cos., which sells six-foot Festivus poles for $39 plus shipping. Journalist Allen Salkin cashed in with his book, "Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us," while O'Keefe contributed "The Real Festivus."

The Grape Ranch vineyard in Oklahoma makes Festivus wine. Other kitschy merchandise includes greeting cards, T-shirts, recipes ("Ham with Junior Mint and Snapple glaze") and songs ("Gather 'Round the Pole" and "Oh Festivus").

At least Ben & Jerry's produced only a limited edition of its "Festivus" flavor: brown sugar cinnamon ice cream loaded with gingerbread cookies and a ginger caramel swirl.

All that merchandising has some folks complaining that the true meaning of the holiest day on the Seinfeld calendar is being lost.

"When I air my grievances this year, they're all about how commercial Festivus has become," said Wil Wheaton, the actor who portrayed Wesley Crusher on the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"And don't even get me started on the new 'designer' aluminum poles," he added.

Shannon Hurst Lane, 35, who hails from Zachary, outside Baton Rouge, La., agreed.

"You would think that Festivus would be anticommercial," she said.

Lane and her fellow bloggers behind TravelingMamas.com celebrated in their own way. They threw a "13 Days of Festivus Giveaway" to give readers the chance to air their grievances about the travel industry and win products that companies had sent to the bloggers in hopes of favorable reviews.

In fielding questions from Washington Post readers, O'Keefe scoffed at the notion that Festivus has become too commercial.

"I don't know you can commercialize something so ridiculous," he said.

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com.

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