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Have a Festivus

This year marks the first time since 2005 I haven’t spent Dec. 23 with my closest friends berating each other via sticky note around a tinfoil-covered support beam.

Festivus is a holiday made popular by the Seinfeld character Frank Castanza. (Wikipedia says it originated in the show’s writer Daniel O’Keefe’s family.) It is a secular response to Christmas, a curmudgeon’s response to holiday shopping, a Festivus for the rest of us.

It is a chance for my high school friends to reconnect and torture each other. It’s an odd tradition, but one we, like many others, hold dear.

The Festivus Pole, 2009. Photo by Stephanie Larue. (Featured hand model is Michelle Leppek.)

On this Festivus day, I would like to share with you some of my memories of past celebrations and give you a guide to hosting your own.

First, you’ll need a pole. No lights, no tinsel, no ornaments. The Festivus pole is traditionally aluminum, but we resort to covering one in tinfoil.

Give everyone a paper bag with his or her name written on it, a pen and stack of paper. As you catch up, snack and reminisce, write (jokingly) about how each person has disappointed you this year. Deposit those notes in the appropriate bags. Then, read them aloud.

Castanza coined this practice the Airing of Grievances.

When we do this, the grievances are usually funny, never intentionally mean. They can be vague (“You are the Katrina to my New Orleans”), sarcastic (“LOVE that shirt!”), and often play on conversations had during the grievance writing (“Did you get funnier?”). We put public grievances about things like school, Kanye West and public transportation on the pole for all to see.

Then, it’s on to the Feats of Strength. This, in my experience, is terrifying. We turn the Feats of Strength portion of the night into a competition, and the winner gets the honor of Festivus Princess.

I have two particularly maniacal friends who come up with extraordinarily grotesque things for us to do. It usually involves public humiliation and eating gross amounts of food. Some examples:

• Race to the bottom of a jar of marshmallow fluff

• Eat disgusting things. Start small – like a spoonful of butter – and work your way up to dog food. (Humans can eat dog food, we checked. When we tried this one, so many of us ate the dog food we had to make a shake of all the ingredients and see who could finish it first.)

• See who can drink a cup of milk out of a baby bottle the fastest

• Wrap yourself in Christmas lights, go to a public place and plug in

• Freeze a mixture of food and water or juice in Dixie cups, then race to see who can finish it first without using his hands

• See who can make herself cry enough to get a tear past the tip of her nose

• See who can fit the most dry oats in his mouth (Warning – this is awful, and probably a choking hazard. Have the vacuum ready.)

• Go to the place where the cool kids from high school are reuniting, put My Heart Will Go On on the jukebox, and ask the old quarterback to slow dance

At the end of the night, the Festivus Princess is given a prize. Past years’ prizes have included a poster of NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, expired dollar store squeeze-cheese and a plastic tiara. The princess also gets the Festivus Fruitcake and must bring the fruitcake back next year. (Amazingly, it still resembles a fruitcake.)

Festivus is largely celebrated in jest. Most of my friends recognize the holidays traditionally, too, and while I am a bit of a Scrooge about things like caroling and Christmas Shoes, I enjoy my family’s conventional Christmas.

But Festivus doesn’t have to be about despising other holidays. It’s an opportunity to release the frustration built by feuding families, to take a night off from baking and wrapping presents, and, in the spirit of competition, to do something no normal person would elect to do.

I challenge you to take up the Festivus tradition. Perhaps your friends and family aren’t interested in a baby-bottle chugging match. Perhaps they don’t enjoy reading personal insults aloud. Perhaps they like to eat things that taste good.

If that’s the case, start small – pop in some Seinfeld, stop decorating, and take time to actually enjoy the people you get to see this time of year. It’s a Festivus for the rest of us, after all.