In my much younger years, I celebrated Festivus. This was not by choice. I was working at a place where every year, at a celebratory holiday party, we always knew there was one guy who would spend the entire time “airing grievances” at the rest of us. One of my coworkers would say, “Are you ready for Festivus this year?”
He was, of course, referencing the famous storyline on the old television comedy Seinfeld, in which George Costanza’s father Frank celebrated his own made-up holiday, complete with an aluminum pole, feats of strength, and of course, the airing of grievances. I would always laugh at my coworker’s joke, because, after all, Festivus was funny—the product of Jerry Seinfeld or some writer’s comedic imagination. Except that it wasn’t.
The Daily Beast recorded an episode of its podcast, Fever Dreams, in which former Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe explained the real-life origins of Festivus. (Beware of profanity in the episode.) He said the holiday was not fictional, at least not in his house growing up, and it was anything but funny.
O’Keefe said his father, an editor at Reader’s Digest and “an undiagnosed bipolar, severe alcoholic,” invented Festivus. He did it with a clock in a bag hung on the wall. The famous aluminum pole wasn’t part of it, but the Airing of Grievances definitely was.
“It was just a very formalized setting for yelling at us,” he told Fever Dreams. “Yeah, growing up, myself and my two brothers were in a form of child abuse that yet wasn’t recognized as such by the state of New York, included to perform seasonal rituals.”
O’Keefe talked about his childhood to some fellow writers, who told him that they along with Jerry Seinfeld wanted to adapt the Festivus ritual for Frank Costanza—minus the abusive behavior and the childhood trauma.
My first thought was, “That is dark.” Then I thought, “How did I never hear the story till now?” I wondered how many other of my favorite comedy moments had started this way. Was there a horror story behind the Dundie Awards or funerals for beloved mini horses? I didn’t want to know. But then I wondered whether Festivus is the holiday of this cultural moment.
Over a decade ago, James Davison Hunter warned that Christian cultural and political engagement had failed in part because of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” This is more than resentment, Hunter argued, but includes “anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action.”
Ressentiment, Hunter wrote, is grounded “in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.” This is especially true, he contended, when the group holds a sense of entitlement—to greater respect, to greater power, to a place of majority status. This posture, he warned, is a political psychology that expresses itself with “the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.”
In Hunter’s explanation, the church—at least in its culture-war-activist form—did not withstand this pull but plunged in headlong. Thus, we end up with the language of “reclaiming” America or “taking back the culture.” Turns out, it all comes down to airing of grievances and feats of strength.
Before we say, “There’s nothing wrong with that,” we should consider what it has done to us, not just as a country but, more importantly, as a church.
In Luke 4:20–30 (ESV throughout), we find that pivotal moment where Jesus announces his mission. To the rest of the world—to our own children—do we look more like the one announcing the good news of “the year of the Lord’s favor,” or like the crowds outraged by the suggestion that the kingdom is bigger than their ethnic and national boundaries? Do we look more like the mobs “filled with wrath” and seeking revenge at the edge of the cliff ,or like the one who, “passing through their midst,” calmly walked forward, face set like flint toward the cross?
Christ’s actions don’t make sense in a world where “feats of strength” are necessary to ward off threats. To a person who doesn’t believe in the living God, the Sermon on the Mount looks weak and the protection of Pharaoh looks strong (Isa. 30:1–2). If there is no Judgment seat, then the “airing of grievances”—accelerating in shrillness and theatricality—is the way to make sure that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).
All we need do is redefine what “vengeance” means and who “I” means. Then we can avoid our calling as ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–21) and embrace a different mission—one that feels better, intimidates more, raises more money, and mobilizes more crowds.
Sure, it ends in the way to death (Prov. 14:12), but death is a long time off.
And yet, here we are with Scriptures that make their way even into some of the Christmas carols playing in the grocery store or the mall. Herod is the one who “is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). His rage and ressentiment isn’t a sign of strength but of how threatened he is, how scared, how angry, how pitiful. He, like the old spirit of Eden, marches forward with “great wrath, because he knows that his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). Old Herod still speaks—with just as much wrath and just as much fear and just as much hunger for power—and he still says, “Come, follow me.”
But we have something different. We have a word handed down to us that tells us, “Fear not, for behold, I bring to you good tidings of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). And the sign is in a feeding trough. The sign is at the pigeon table in the temple courts (vv. 22–35). The sign is a body present on an imperial execution stake, and a body absent from a borrowed tomb. The sign is what seems weak and foolish and “unrealistic.” That’s where the wisdom is, the power is, the reality is.
But that will require a different kind of power than Darwinian strength that gets us noticed by whatever Pharaoh or Caesar we want to protect us. It will require a different kind of belonging than the kind that comes by loathing those who the people in our circles tell us to hate. It will require us to be a people who really believe that what we carry is news, that it is good, and that it is for all people.
Feats of strength and airing of grievances are exhausting and demoralizing. Look at their fruits. Are we more connected or more lonely? Is the light of the gospel more visible or less? David Foster Wallace warned us about this: “Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.”
Like Festivus, it all seems funny until you see the trauma underneath.
Maybe what we need is not a new holiday—real or metaphorical—for “the rest of us.” Maybe what need is rest, for us. Maybe what we long for is the kind of rest that need not prove itself by its self-protection and influence. Maybe what we need is a different witness, an older kind—one that really is good news in a world where it’s always Festivus and never Christmas.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.