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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

Pole Position: Festivus Races On

The holiday for the rest of us

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Free of all the trimmings of other December holidays, Festivus, celebrated on Dec. 23, encourages behavior otherwise frowned upon at family gatherings and holiday parties. If one individual challenges another individual to a wrestling match, drunkenly or otherwise, it isn’t a cause for concern. The “airing of grievances” is expected, and in some cases mandatory, because it isn’t pitting people against each other if the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. Festivus is honest, which is why “the holiday for the rest of us” may make for the ideal recession holiday.

“As long as there’s something to blow off steam about, there will be a Festivus,” writes Allen Salkin in Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us. In his book, Salkin tracks the origins of the holiday beyond the famous 1997 “Seinfeld” episode where Frank Costanza proclaims the tenets of Festivus. Writer Daniel O’Keefe dreamed up Festivus as far back as the 1960s. His idea served as inspiration to his son, Dan O’Keefe, a “Seinfeld” scriptwriter.

There are no candles or trees—only a Festivus pole, described as an “unadorned and lusterless” length of aluminum. According to Salkin, some use heating pipes and others spray-paint paper-towel rolls. And while a toilet paper roll covered in tinfoil can suffice for some, other celebrations call for a pole with a “very high strength-to-weight ratio”—a pole worthy of Costanza’s rage and contempt.

The Milwaukee Connection

Since 2005, the Wagner Companies, a Milwaukee-area railing products manufacturer, has produced Festivus poles in both a 6-foot floor model and a 2-foot-8-inch tabletop model. Recently, the company introduced the pole in an 8-inch desktop variety.

Tony Leto, the company’s executive vice president of sales, conceptualized the Wagner Festivus pole after reading Salkin’s 2004 New York Times article, “Fooey to the World: Festivus Is Come,” which revealed that Festivus had transitioned from a “Seinfeld” story line to an increasingly popular holiday. Festivus celebrations, Leto noted, required Festivus poles, and his firm had a ready supply of aluminum pipes, so he pitched the idea to the company’s president, Bob Wagner.

“I said, ‘Hey, we could make Festivus poles,’” Leto says. “We’re not going to make a fortune off of it, but we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Wagner agreed, securing the domain festivuspoles.com, and “within a couple of months we were in the Festivus pole business,” Leto adds.

Business has been good. Though Festivus poles are not Wagner’s priority business, the “side project,” which was only expected to last a year or two, has thrived. Thanks in large part to media coverage (not just local radio, but also national outlets like CNN), Wagner has seen a jump in sales from the 212 poles sold in 2005. To date, the company has sold 5,000 poles. And while the publicity has been nice, Leto is equally appreciative of Festivus for injecting some fun into railing manufacturing—certainly far less impressive feats have been declared Festivus miracles.

But while Wagner has enjoyed lots of attention for its clever conception, they are not without critics. There are some who view profiting from Festivus as a violation of Costanza’s Festivus “commandments.” Because Wagner has earned money from its endeavor, the company is accused of commercializing Festivus.

Doomed to Failure?

“The spirit of Festivus wants to destroy all corrupters of Festivus,” says Salkin, who argues that any attempts to exploit the holiday are “doomed to failure.” Though Salkin himself can be accused of “exploitation,” he says that he is exempt from the label because his intention was to “document a subculture.”

Ben & Jerry’s audacious Festivus flavor, a combination of brown sugar cinnamon ice cream, gingerbread cookies and a ginger caramel swirl, is among the nonexempt Festivus ventures mentioned in Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us. The flavor was available in 2000 and 2001, but was discontinued when it did not sell to Ben & Jerry’s expectations. Salkin writes that the issue could have been one of taste, but also suggests that Ben & Jerry’s Festivus failure “may have been due to a backlash against the attempt to distill the essence of something undistillable.”

Dan O’Keefe doesn’t have a problem with the commercialization of Festivus—at least not when he fielded online questions from readers for the Washington Post in 2009. O’Keefe didn’t hide his bemusement of Festivus’ enduring popularity or its ridiculousness, and when Leto disclosed that Wagner Companies is often accused of commercializing Festivus, O’Keefe replied, “Commercialize away. It does not involve the birth of a savior of mankind, and thus you are not cheapening anything with mere commerce.”