Former "Seinfeld" writer Daniel O'Keefe admits it: He was a little taken aback when the family holiday tradition he wrote into an episode of the classic series, Festivus, caught on with fans of the show.
The alternative end-of-year holiday (involving a celebratory pole and feats of strength) originated with O'Keefe's dad in 1966 and morphed into "a peculiar celebration unique to our peculiar family," he told TODAY.
"Was I surprised that actual human people adopted a weird TV holiday based on a crazy family tradition that bordered on child endangerment?" ask the TV writer, who now works on HBO's "Silicon Valley." "That would be 'yes.' As to why this occurred, I believe the answer is clear: it is a sign that the End of Days is upon us."
Still, while most people celebrate the end-of-year-holidays that generally encompass Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa with tried-and-true traditions, a significant number of families and individuals have come up with their own unique, creative ways to see the year out.
1. The $20 challenge
For example, in my home we celebrate Hanukkah primarily, but give a nod to Christmas as well with token gifts. The rule, though, is that you must purchase at least four presents and spend no more than $20. This has led to hilarious dollar-store presents like kites that get approximately one use before falling apart, lottery tickets and craft projects with tiny jars of paint and silly plaster figurines.
It's just a way to have fun with a day that otherwise could go more or less unremarked-on (in our home).
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But others have different reasons for turning the holidays on their heads! Here are just a few:
2. Stockings filled with swag
Starting when he was in 8th grade, Rob Emard's family, of Gaithersburg, MD, began pinching pennies, so traditional Christmas stockings went by the wayside. But not entirely. Emard's father worked in an industry that had him attending trade shows frequently, which meant he came home with all kinds of swag.
"The new idea was to have freebie stockings," he says. "Anything you got free — nothing stolen or taken from the office — throughout the year could be placed into any family member's 'stocking."
Over the years, as the kids grew up and got their own jobs (and freebies), "It got pretty big," he admits, noting that the free stuff has included cereal boxes, toys, CDs, movies, golf balls, pens, squeeze balls, Frisbees and drink mixes.
"I think the meaning of the freebie stocking was that you don't have to spend money to give/receive things," he says. "There is plenty that doesn't cost anything — and quite useful!"
3. Getting back to nature with Litha, a solstice celebration
Author Sarah Elwell spends Christmas Day visiting family, but when it comes to celebrating the end of the year and her family celebrate Litha, a midsummer solstice celebration, on December 21. (She's down under and so has Christmas in the middle of her summertime.)
For Litha, they have a candlelit breakfast of favorite foods, and sometimes exchange small gifts. "We then spend the day outdoors, going to the beach or for a walk in the woods," she says. "We choose this because it brings us close to the spirit of life and is a gentle, peaceful way of celebrating the sacred day. Then on Christmas Day itself, we usually join our wider family at some point. An important part of our celebration involves giving gifts in the weeks of December to people in need."
To find out more, Elwell wrote about the celebration in a blog post.
4. "Chosen Family" Day
A troubled family life growing up led Gwyndyn Alexander of New Orleans, LA to forge forward with her own traditions. Her "weird Aunt Grace, the Jewish Pagan ... inspired me to create my own chosen family, to make my own traditions and to do my own thing," she says.
That means that over the years her "chosen family" chooses a day that works for everyone and assembles for food, drinks, and presents. Alexander says she also makes sure to donate in everyone's name to a shared worthy cause.
"Conversation at the party tends toward discussion of activism, what we're all working on and how we can help each other with our projects. It's always lots of fun and results in good works done, so it's a win-win," she says.
5. Christmas from another time and place
Award-winning author and editor Terri Windling of Devon, UK incorporates dressing up into her family holiday tradition — but maybe not in the holiday frocks you might expect.
"A few years ago we started a tradition where we pick an era from history and base our Christmas meal around it, dressing up in clothes of the era and decorating the table accordingly," she says. "In the evening, we watch a film set in the period, along with a dessert and drink typical of the era."
So far they've done Medieval Christmas, Regency Christmas, and 1930s-40s Christmas. This year: Victorian Christmas. She also incorporates a "Solstice Tree" into the festivities, locating a branch or sapling in the woods near where she lives that's already fallen to the ground, and decorate that rather than chopping a living tree.
"We're not strict about keeping everything historically correct," she adds. "It's meant to be fun, not a chore. It helps that my mother-in-law is a theatrical costume designer, so getting period clothes is easy."
If you'd like to learn more, Windling wrote a blog post about the celebration.
6. Talent amidst the festival of lights
In Geri Sher's home (she's mom to TODAY.com's own Emily Sher) in Livingston, New Jersey the traditional Hanukkah celebration of her childhood has blossomed into a large gathering that extends to friends as well family. But she wanted to make it more than about an "abundance of gifts for the children."
"Since traditionally Hanukkah is a holiday for the children [and] only the kids received gifts, I felt it only fair that the children give something back," she says.
So before gift-giving begins, there is a recitation of the accomplishments of the children over the year ("we didn't have the luxury of seeing each others' children on a daily basis," she notes) and a Talent Show. Every child (including babies, with help from parents) has to entertain the adults. "Talents" over the years have included karate demonstrations, trivia, jokes, dancing "and all kinds of silliness," she says.
"At the end of the day, the most important tradition of all is sharing the holiday with those we love," she says. "The joy has been watching the children grow up and helping create memories that I hope they will pass on and cherish for a lifetime."
7. Dinner and a show
Artist Shearstone of Ashford, CT came from a traditional family Christmas background, complete with Catholic Mass and a turkey or ham dinner. "My grandmother would send the Polish 'oplatek' — a thin wafer with a religious scene imprinted on it — for the Christmas Eve celebration of Wigilia."
But with her family scattered in recent years, and her departure from the religious aspects of the holiday, Shearstone decided to say "to heck with the traditions" and made up her own: dinners with friends that involve pierogi and tamales, plus a regular visit to The Hometown Throwdown thrown by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones over three nights at the end of December with a pal, Phred.
Unfortunately, a car accident in September has sidelined Shearstone, who may not be able to attend this year due to eye issues and a head injury. But she is still remaining positive: "I'm really hoping for a miracle from the neurologist between now and [the shows]," she said. "Otherwise, it might be all ice cream and YouTube!"
So what about Dan O'Keefe, whose alternate celebration rings perhaps louder than all others?
"I will be celebrating Festivus this year by going ice skating on the surface of hell," he quips. "We don't really celebrate it any more. Others have picked up the torch and run with it. On the other hand, my kid just expressed an interest in reviving it, so who knows?"
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