Festivus was conceived by author and editor Daniel O'Keefe, the father of TV writer Dan O'Keefe, and was celebrated by his family as early as 1966. The word Festivus in this sense was coined by the elder O'Keefe, and according to him the name "just popped into my head". In the original O'Keefe tradition, the holiday would take place to celebrate the anniversary of Daniel O'Keefe's first date with his future wife, Deborah. The phrase, "a Festivus for the rest of us" originally referred to those remaining after the death of the elder O'Keefe's mother, Jeanette, in 1976; i.e., the "rest of us" are the living, as opposed to the dead.
In 1982, Daniel O'Keefe wrote a book, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, that deals with idiosyncratic ritual and its social significance, a theme relevant to Festivus tradition.
The English word festive derives from Latin "festivus", an adjective meaning "excellent, jovial, lively, which in turn derives from festus "joyous; holiday, feast day".
It is now celebrated on December 23, as depicted in the Seinfeld episode written by O'Keefe's son.
Festivus was introduced in the Seinfeld episode "The Strike", written by Daniel O'Keefe's son Dan O'Keefe. The episode revolves around Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) returning to work at his old job, H&H Bagels. While dining at Monk's Restaurant, Jerry, George and Elaine discuss George's father's creation of Festivus. Kramer then becomes interested in resurrecting the holiday when, at the bagel shop, Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) tells him how he created Festivus as an alternative holiday in response to the commercialization of Christmas.
Frank Costanza's son, George (Jason Alexander), creates donation cards for a fake charity called The Human Fund (with the slogan "Money for People") in lieu of having to give office Christmas presents. When his boss, Mr. Kruger (Daniel von Bargen), questions George about a $20,000 check he gave George to donate to the Human Fund as a corporate donation, George hastily concocts the excuse that he made up the Human Fund because he feared persecution for his beliefs, of celebrating Festivus instead of Christmas. Attempting to call his bluff, Kruger goes home with George to see Festivus in action.
Kramer eventually goes back on strike from his bagel-vendor job when his manager tells him he cannot take December 23 off to celebrate his new-found holiday. Kramer is then seen on the sidewalk picketing H&H Bagels, carrying a sign reading "Festivus yes! Bagels no!" and chanting to anyone passing the store: "Hey! No bagel, no bagel, no bagel..."
Finally, at Frank's house in Queens, Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George gather to celebrate Festivus. George brings Kruger to prove to him that Festivus is "all too real".
The holiday, as portrayed in the Seinfeld episode, includes practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", which occurs during the Festivus meal and in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year. After the meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is pinned.
In the episode, the tradition of Festivus begins with an aluminum pole. Frank Costanza cites its "very high strength-to-weight ratio" as appealing. During Festivus, the pole is displayed unadorned. According to Frank, "I find tinsel distracting."
Dan O'Keefe credits fellow Seinfeld writer Jeff Schaffer with introducing the concept. The aluminum pole was not part of the original O'Keefe family celebration, which centered on putting a clock in a bag and nailing it to a wall.
In "The Strike", a celebratory dinner is shown on the evening of Festivus prior to the Feats of Strength and during the Airing of Grievances. The on-air meal shows Estelle Costanza serving a sliced reddish colored meat-loaf shaped food on a bed of lettuce. In the episode no alcohol is served at the dinner, but George's boss, Mr. Kruger, drinks something from a hip flask.
The original holiday dinner in the O'Keefe household featured turkey or ham as described in Dan O'Keefe's The Real Festivus.
The celebration of Festivus begins with the "Airing of Grievances", which takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner has been served. In the television episode, Frank Costanza began it with the phrase, "I got a lotta problems with you people, and now you're going to hear about it!" It consists of each person lashing out at others and the world about how they have been disappointed in the past year.
The Feats of Strength are the final tradition observed in the celebration of Festivus, celebrated immediately following (or in the case of "The Strike", during) the Festivus dinner. The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges them to a wrestling match. Tradition states Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. In "The Strike", however, Kramer manages to circumvent the rule by creating an excuse to leave. The Feats of Strength are mentioned twice in the episode before they take place. In both instances, no detail was given as to what had happened, but in both instances, George Costanza ran out of the coffee shop in a mad panic, implying he had bad experiences with the Feats of Strength in the past. What the Feats of Strength entailed was revealed at the very end of the episode, when it took place. Failing to pin the head of the household results in Festivus continuing until such requirement is met.
Cosmo Kramer twice declares a "Festivus Miracle" during the Festivus celebration in the Costanza household. Kramer causes the occurrence of two "miracles" by inviting two off-track betting bookies to dinner with Elaine (men whom Elaine wished to avoid), and by causing Jerry's girlfriend Gwen to believe that Jerry was cheating on her.
Some people, most of them inspired by the Seinfeld episode, subsequently began to celebrate the holiday with varying degrees of seriousness. Allen Salkin's 2005 book Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us chronicles the early adoption of Festivus. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut's book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) references Festivus, along with hybrid holidays such as Chrismukkah.
During the Baltimore Ravens' run to the Super Bowl XXXV Championship in 2000, head coach Brian Billick superstitiously issued an organizational ban on the use of the word "playoffs" until the team had clinched its first postseason berth. "Playoffs" was instead referred to as "Festivus" and the Super Bowl as "Festivus Maximus".
In 2005, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle was declared "Governor Festivus", and during the holiday season displayed a Festivus Pole in the family room of the Executive Residence in Madison, Wisconsin. Governor Doyle's 2005 Festivus Pole is now part of the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
In 2010, a CNN story featuring Jerry Stiller detailed the increasing popularity of the holiday, including US Representative Eric Cantor's Festivus fundraiser, and the Christian Science Monitor reported that Festivus was a top trend on Twitter that year.
In 2012, Google introduced a custom search result for the term "Festivus". In addition to the normal results, an unadorned aluminum pole was displayed running down the side of the list of search results and "A festivus miracle!" prefixes the results count and speed.
In 2012, a Festivus Pole was erected on city property in Deerfield Beach, Florida, alongside religious themed holiday displays. A similar Festivus Pole was displayed next to religious displays in the Wisconsin State Capitol, along with a banner provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation advocating for the separation of government and religion.
In 2013 and 2014, a Festivus Pole constructed with 6 feet (1.8 m) of beer cans was erected next to a nativity scene and other religious holiday displays in the Florida State Capitol Building, as a protest supporting separation of church and state. For the third year in a row in 2015, the same man was granted permission to display a Festivus pole, this year decorated with a gay pride theme and topped with a disco ball to celebrate the court's decision on same-sex marriage, at state capitols in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Washington.
In 2016, US Senator Rand Paul released a special Festivus edition of The Waste Report.
In 2016, the Tampa Bay Times became the first newspaper to allow readers to submit Festivus grievances through its website, with the promise to publish them on December 23, the day of the Festivus holiday.
In 2017, CNN's Jake Tapper recapped President Donald Trump's berating the News media saying, "instead of focusing on his accomplishments and offering an optimistic positive view of what he's doing for this country, it was an airing of grievances, it was Festivus, it was complaints about the media."
The O'Keefe family holiday featured other practices, as detailed in The Real Festivus (2005), a book by Daniel O'Keefe's son, Dan O'Keefe. Besides providing a first-person account of the early version of the Festivus holiday as celebrated by the O'Keefe family, the book relates how Dan O'Keefe amended or replaced details of his father's invention to create the Seinfeld episode.
In a 2013 CNN segment on the origins of Festivus, O'Keefe spoke about the real-life experiences related to the holiday. O'Keefe's father, who originated some of the now-recognized Festivus traditions, used a clock, not an aluminum pole. O'Keefe told CNN:
"The real symbol of the holiday was a clock that my dad put in a bag and nailed to the wall every year...I don't know why, I don't know what it means, he would never tell me. He would always say, 'That's not for you to know.'"