The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O’Keefe, 76, whose son Daniel, a writer on “Seinfeld,” appropriated a family tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O’Keefe was stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966, is catching on. “Have we accidentally invented a cult?” he wondered….
Both Dan O’Keefe and his son bless the variations. The original Festivus was constantly in flux.
“It was entirely more peculiar than on the show,” the younger Mr. O’Keefe said from the set of the sitcom “Listen Up,” where he is now a writer. There was never a pole, but there were airings of grievances into a tape recorder and wrestling matches between Daniel and his two brothers, among other rites.
“There was a clock in a bag,” said Mr. O’Keefe, 36, adding that he does not know what it symbolized.
“Most of the Festivi had a theme,” he said. “One was,
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?' Another was,Too easily made glad?’ “
His father, a former editor at Reader’s Digest, said the first Festivus took place in February 1966, before any of his children were born, as a celebration of the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Deborah. The word “Festivus” just popped into his head, he said from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
The holiday evolved during the 1970’s, when the elder Mr. O’Keefe began doing research for his book “Stolen Lightning” (Vintage 1983), a work of sociology that explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures.
Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. “In the background was Durkheim’s `Elementary Forms of Religious Life,’ ” Mr. O’Keefe recalled, “saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community.”
Thing is, I read Stolen Lightning in grad school. It’s a pretty brilliant work. Wrote a paper that used it heavily, discussing Seneca’s Medea. That description isn’t quite accurate: it’s simply a sociological theory of magic.