Festivus: A model for family traditions

The world was formally introduced to Festivus—which is celebrated today, December 23—in the 1997 Seinfeld episode entitled “The Strike.” Frustrated with the commercialism and stress that accompanies Christmas, Frank Costanza (George’s father) invented a new winter holiday with new traditions: “Festivus.” Instead of a Christmas tree for decoration, for instance, Frank decided to use a “Festivus pole,” which is simply a plain aluminum pole.


There are two important traditions that accompany Festivus: the “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength.” During the first, each member of the family shares how the other members have disappointed him or her in the previous year, and in “Feats of Strength” the patriarch is allowed to choose one person to wrestle. These are quirky tenets for a holiday gathering, but I think we’d all have to admit that they are no quirkier than many of the odd things that we already do on Christmas.

So what does Festivus have to do with family law? Well, an important part of being a family lawyer is thinking through what makes a family successful, whether it is a “traditional” family, a blended family, a single-parent family, or an adoptive family. And although the Seinfeld writers created the idea of Festivus primarily to entertain, there is nevertheless an important lesson for every family: traditions matter.

It is admittedly difficult to engage with our family members. They know us, warts and all. We may not have anything in common with them except the fact that we’re family. They may have hurts us deeply in the past. There are a number of hurdles that we might have to face when we get together with our families during the holidays. Our tendency is often to look for any distraction that we can and distance ourselves, meticulously counting the minutes until we can leave.

Perhaps the distraction is a football game. Or sleep. Or alcohol. Or your phone. Or (my personal favorite) a new book.

But family traditions act as a restraint on our desire to escape. If we simply show up at Christmas without a plan, it is easy to slip into unhealthy patterns. We eat too much, we get tired, and we can squander rare opportunities to invest time into our family. Traditions—whatever they may be—demand our attention and require that we interact with each other. Depending on your particular tradition, you may have the rare opportunity to share something important with another family member.

Christmastime—or Festivustime—or whatever your holiday tradition—is not the time to check out mentally. Instead, it should provide an opportunity to love your family and learn more about them. But make no mistake: that won’t happen automatically. It takes work, and cultivating traditions is a great place to start.