Apparently, there’s money to be made off a made-up holiday.
Festivus, the Dec. 23 holiday that started as a gag on a 1997 “Seinfeld” episode but became something real for fans of the sitcom, has turned into a seasonal merchandising opportunity, not unlike Christmas or Hanukkah. In recent years, a host of companies have come up with a range of Festivus-themed items and products.
Chief among them: a Festivus pole, the all-important totem, as prescribed by Frank Costanza, the comically gruff “Seinfeld” character, played by the late Jerry Stiller. Costanza devised the oddball, secular holiday, which comes replete with its own saying: “A Festivus for the rest of us.”
The Wagner Companies, a Wisconsin-based operation that specializes in manufacturing handrails, has developed a side business producing Festivus poles — essentially, plain-Jane aluminum poles affixed to a base. Prices range from about $12 to $45, with the cost varying depending on size.
Bob Wagner, the company’s chief executive, says the business has sold more than 2,000 poles in some years, especially when it first introduced them more than a decade ago. “It went crazy,” he said. This year, supply-chain issues — yes, they even arise with Festivus — have limited production, but the company has still sold about 500, Wagner said.
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The Festivus merchandising goes well beyond poles, however. You’ll find companies hawking everything from Festivus apparel to a Festivus kit. And let’s not forget that other holiday must-have: Festivus-themed maple syrup.
Runamok, a Vermont-based producer of maple syrup, launched just that a couple of years ago. Laura Sorkin, who owns the company with her husband Eric, said it just fit into the “whimsical” nature of the brand. The syrup, which is flavored with gingerbread spices, is the same one that’s packaged by Runamok as a “Holiday Spice Infused” offering. But in this case, it’s in a “Festivus Infused” bottle with the image of — what else? — a Festivus pole.
“It’s one of our top-ten sellers for the last two months of the year,” said Eric Sorkin, who noted that sales are in the thousands for the $17.95 bottle.
The boom in Festivus products doesn’t come as a surprise to Allen Salkin, a pop-culture expert who wrote a book on the holiday with a foreword by Stiller. He said it’s the nature of capitalism to “dig its tentacles into a holiday about nothing and try to make it about dollars.”
But Salkin adds that this merchandising actually runs contrary to the spirit of the Festivus. In the show, Frank Costanza notes that Festivus arose from his frustrations with the traditional holiday season, particularly the rush to buy gifts. “I realized there had to be another way,” the character says of the holiday, which incorporates such other rituals as an airing of grievances and a contest of wills (or “feats of strength”).
So, Festivus shouldn’t be about buying anything, Salkin argues. “It’s antithetical,” he said.
Certainly, there are those who take such a message to heart. Marc Molinaro, executive of Dutchess County in upstate New York, is a Festivus celebrant who said his Festivus pole was fashioned at no cost by a welder friend who had some spare parts. Molinaro has bequeathed the pole to the county for its annual marking of the holiday.
Regardless of how Festivus is observed, Molinaro makes the point that we all could use a little Festivus silliness in our lives. “It’s sort of like the release valve you need before celebrating all the other holidays,” he said.