Finals Edition: Suss: Festivus secular replacement for Christmas

By Stephen Suss / Columnist

As do many Americans, I get a knot in my stomach every holiday season as I witness the degraded festivities that somehow still go by the name of Christmas.

However, if television shows such as “Family Guy,” “Futurama” and “The Daily Show” have proven anything, it’s that when criticizing aspects of society, it’s best to do so with a sense of humor. This is why I decided to repudiate Christmas and, like some others, adopt a holiday from a parody — Festivus.

For many secular families, Christmas is a tradition of which it is difficult to let go. This is due in large part to how tightly Christmas has become woven into the economic fabric of our capitalist society.

The enormous number of people who still observe Christmas, despite how increasingly non-religious society has become, may be evidence that American culture is controlled by corporations. That is, the traditions to which families hold on have relatively little to do with Christianity but are primarily an invention of the capitalist superstructure.

This might be fine if these traditions were innocuous, but each holiday season we witness the exploitation of low-income workers in the name of the holiday season. Walmart, Kmart, Best Buy and Macy’s are just a few companies that felt Thanksgiving came too late this year and decided to extend their hours into that holiday. A Sears manager from Plymouth, N.H., is even having her bonus for this year withheld as a result of her refusal to open at 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

After witnessing these events, I resolved to abandon the celebration of Christmas altogether. Instead, I decided I needed a holiday that stood against everything Christmas had become. I found my inspiration in an unlikely place.

Celebrated Dec. 23, Festivus was initially a made-up holiday that made its debut in the TV series “Seinfeld” in the episode “The Strike.” Over the years, some have decided to adopt the celebration’s customs from this episode and now celebrate the holiday in rebellion against Christmas. In many ways this is apt, as the “traditions” of Festivus reject many of the distasteful aspects of the alternative.

In “The Strike,” Frank Costanza explains that he created Festivus because he hated all the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas. He states that while beating another man over the purchase of a doll, he thought to himself, “There must be another way.” The adaptation of Festivus into a cult holiday has been met with various degrees of seriousness, but it’s clear that the holiday is often adopted as a method of resistance to the commercialized aspects of Christmas.

It might seem ironic to adopt a holiday from a television show such as “Seinfeld,” itself a product of popular culture, to replace the commercialized aspects of Christmas, but as we look beyond the light, surface-level quips of the episode — such as the Festivus “feats of strength,” in which the host must be pinned to the ground by a guest — we can observe that some of the episode’s jokes actually reflect a critical analysis of the commercialization of the holiday season.

Most notable, perhaps, is the unadorned, aluminum Festivus pole, which takes the place of the traditional Christmas tree. The pole itself symbolizes a rejection of the superfluous aspects surrounding the Christmas season and the overindulgence we often see in Christmas decorations, many of which have no religious significance but are simple props from popular culture. Corporations have turned decorations into hollow and often meaningless commodities. They motivate people to buy larger trees or longer strings of lights for no particular reason other than for profit.

Festivus thus provides an opportunity for people to gather as a family without the commercial or religious pressures of Christmas. While my motives for adopting this new holiday may just seem humorous at surface level, I’ve found a way to make Festivus truly reflect my own secular values. In essence, I simply wish to prove that we don’t need religion or corporations to define what we do during the holiday season — we can make it up and have fun with it. We can still develop meaning and pass on our values just by spending time with our families.

Write Stephen at [email protected].