Get festive on Festivus with a low-key celebration

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PITTSFIELD >> It comes without tinsel, expensive gifts and the pressures of hosting the perfect holiday party.

Festivus — the all-inclusive alternative holiday inspired by a 1997 "Seinfeld" episode — is embraced and celebrated by thousands across the nation each year. Festivities range from large events in Dallas and Philadelphia to small, intimate parties, like the one hosted last weekend by city residents Gina Gioiello and Matt Davis.

"I like the idea of Festivus because I don't have to stress myself out finding the perfect ugly sweater or Yankee Swap gift," Gioiello said during a telephone interview. "It's low-maintenance. It's about having people show up and hang out."

The minimalist approach to celebrating the holidays is what first attracted Davis and his friends to the concept of Festivus.

"I've been celebrating it since I was 16," Davis, now 30, said. "We didn't have fun at our family parties, so we held a Festivus party. It was a way to hang out with our friends in between dealing with our families and Christmas parties. When we went away to college, we'd hold it when everyone came home at the end of the semester. ... Basically, if you open a bag of chips and have a drink with a second person, you're celebrating Festivus."

Festivus' low-key approach to celebrating the holiday season is part of what has given it staying power, according to Mark Nelson, founder of FestivusWeb.com.

"Festivus is fun. In my family, we all love 'Seinfeld' and Festivus allows us to get together and joke about all things Seinfeld. Certainly the holiday is low-key, especially when compared to Christmas, and the allure for us is that it is easy to celebrate," he said in a recent email interview with The Eagle.

"Seinfeld" fans were first introduced to Festivus in the 1997 episode, "The Strike." During the episode, the Costanza family celebrates Festivus, a holiday created by Jerry Stiller's character, Frank, as an antidote to the commercialization of Christmas. The holiday celebration includes an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole and two traditions — "Airing of Grievances," (telling others what they've done to disappoint you during the year) and "Feats of Strength" (pinning the host to end the celebration).

Nelson said his family began celebrating the holiday in 2005, the same year he launched his website, which provides Festivus party-planning tips and ideas, as well its origins.

"I have a large family and we always have celebrated Christmas together. However, in December 2005, our mother was sick in the hospital over Christmas. We did not feel that we could celebrate Christmas together as we normally would, as we were spending time at the hospital with her," he said. "Around Dec. 23, my younger sister declared that we should all go to her place and have a 'Festivus Party' instead. ...We have been doing this together as a family every year since. We still celebrate Christmas as we normally did in the past; however, we have added Festivus as well, mainly because it is so much fun."

Gioiello, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said she first celebrated Festivus shortly after graduating from college and has celebrated it every year since. However, last Saturday's soiree was her first time hosting a party.

Nelson's website played a part in her party planning, she said. Her festivities included the basic elements: A Festivus pole; the "Airing of Grievances," and "Feats of Strength." It also included a "Regifting Exchange," an element added by Nelson's sister, that she found on the website.

"We have two Festivus poles — one inside and one outside. Outside, we have a bare flag pole. Inside we're using an old lacrosse stick," she said. "For the 'Airing of Grievances' we have cards that guests can write them down on and a chalk board wall where thy can also be written.

"The 'Regifting Exchange' is great because you can't buy anything new for it. You just wrap a used item that you no longer want and bring it. During the party, the gifts are handed out at random and then a script is read. The script includes key words, such as left and right, which signal that the presents are to be passed."

One rule the local couple wasn't too concerned about breaking was when they held their party. Some Festivus purists say the holiday is meant to be held on Dec. 23 — the date mentioned in the "Seinfeld" episode.

"We celebrate it any time between Thanksgiving and Christmas," Davis said. "The closer you get to Christmas, the harder it is to get people together. We figured now was a good time to celebrate."

Festivus facts

The Festivus Pole: An unadorned aluminum pole is the best, but is not necessary. You could use an old lamp or a cardboard tube covered in aluminum foil. It doesn't really matter. Just like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, it's not how it looks; it's the spirit that counts.

Airing of the Grievances: You can have a form people fill out or place sticky notes on the Festivus Pole, which is popular. My advice to you is to place a few "grievances" on the pole (in advance) that are light-hearted and humorous, thereby setting the tone for other grievances. You don't want your Festivus party to be too dark.

Feats of Strength: Be prepared for bruises, dislocations and broken furniture unless you replace it with an alternative low-impact activity. On our website, we have many fun suggestions such as board games, thumb wrestling, beer pong and even arm wrestling. Keep in mind that "Seinfeld" tradition dictates "Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned," so you have to build that into your alternate activity.

Festivus Food: The traditional Festivus food is meatloaf, as this was the dish served by Estelle Costanza in the "Seinfeld" episode. However, many people enjoy serving other foods from the show, such as marble rye bread, Junior Mints, soup (mulligatawny, jambalaya, crab bisque etc.) paella, a big salad, black-and-white cookies. Nelson also suggests a pot-luck dinner.

Take your party to the next level: Dress up as your favorite "Seinfeld" character. For a group that loves to dress up, this would be ideal.

— Mark Nelson, founder of FestivusWeb.com

Contact Jennifer Huberdeau at 413-496-6229.


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