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Yes, Virginia, there is a Festivus

The 'Seinfeld'-fueled, secular pseudo-holiday has grown by leaps and bounds over 9 years

At Julie Doyle's apartment in Quincy recently, party guests gathered to celebrate the season in what has become High Festivus fashion.

A dozen invitees sat around Doyle's living room next to the holiday pole, an aluminum shower rod purchased at Wal-Mart and anchored in a stand filled with clothespins. They enjoyed comfort food (chicken wings, nachos) and holiday music (Tejano) washed down with liberal quantities of holiday cheer.

When the spirit, or Bud Light, moved them, they wrote articles of complaint about their dates and siblings in a ritual known as the Airing of Grievances. These mostly unprintable comments, scrawled on pieces of white cloth, were hung around the ceiling molding, a literal laundry list of annoyances that began with bodily functions and went merrily downhill from there.

Late in the evening came the much-anticipated Feats of Strength, in this case involving a beer pong table, followed by the piece de Festivus: a wrestling match between Doyle and her sister Lindsay, ending with the hostess being pinned to the floor.

A festive time was had by all.

"My friends and I are really goofy," explained Doyle, 27, when asked why she elected to organize her party around Festivus -- a pseudo-holiday brought into public consciousness by "Seinfeld" writers nine years ago -- rather than Christmas, Hanukkah, or some other more conventional holiday.

"Festivus isn't about any specific religion," Doyle said, stating what seemed both obvious and reassuring. "It's inclusive. And funny."

Inclusivity and mirth, not to be confused with frankincense and myrrh, are two reasons why Festivus has gone from sitcom gag to alt-holiday happening over the past few years, at a pace even faster than Michael Richards's career has imploded.

In the original "Seinfeld" rendering, broadcast Dec. 18, 1997, Festivus was invented by Frank Costanza (played by Jerry Stiller) as a "holiday for the rest of us." Having waged a department store tug-of-war with a fellow shopper, Frank went bah, humbug on Christmas and began his own holiday tradition. Its rituals came to include an aluminum pole in place of a tree, a public listing of all your relatives' disappointing habits, and a wrestling match with the head of household, not deemed over until someone cried "Uncle."

Festivus was just one plotline in the episode, but it grabbed viewers' imaginations with surprising force. Like another famous "Seinfeld" chapter, the "Soup Nazi" episode, it was loosely based on real life ("Seinfeld" writer Daniel O'Keefe grew up in a household where Festivus was conceived and celebrated) and, thanks to the power of pop culture, quickly morphed into a case of life imitating art.

Much as "Seinfeld" thrives in syndication heaven today, so does Festivus and its expanding pool of celebrants. Behind its popularity, devotees say, are its absence of presents, accent on idiocy, and refreshing lack of familial psychodrama. Festivus may have its own quirky rituals, they note, but none involving theology, batteries, reindeer, political correctness, or parental guilt.

"Just the words 'Happy Festivus' allow you to mock the most annoying time of the year," says Allen Salkin , author of "Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us," one of two books (O'Keefe wrote the other) capitalizing on the Festivus craze. "You deconstruct the entire holiday season just by saying it."

Salkin, now a staff writer for The New York Times, has already hosted his annual Festivus party this season. But he's been invited to dozens more, their frequency accelerating as Christmas looms. " Dec. 23 is the official day," Salkin says. "But people start partying earlier, because by then they've headed home to celebrate the holidays with the people they don't want to be with."

Growing numbers of visitors to Salkin's website (festivusbook.com) and other anecdotal evidence gathered by the author suggest that Festivus parties have multiplied with each passing year. More and more, he says, it's become the hip holiday for the post- "Seinfeld," post-irony crowd that gets its news from Comedy Central and its social cues from stand - up comics, not department store Santas.

For a "non-commercial" holiday, it has also spawned its share of merchandise. Festivus celebrants can now go online and purchase specialty items like wine (Grape Ranch Festivus Red, made in Oklahoma), greeting cards, and aluminum poles, in both table top and floor models (available at www. festivuspoles.com). From holiday songs ("Gather 'Round the Pole," "Oh Festivus") to Festivus recipes (Ham With Junior Mint and Snapple Glaze, reprinted in Salkin's book), the trappings and trimmings associated with bona fide holidays have become readily available in a kitschy sort of way.

At Harvard College's Cabot House, the aluminum pole went up shortly after Thanksgiving in anticipation of a holiday tradition that began four years ago. A few hundred students turned out for last Sunday's Festivus fete, featuring a variety of ethnic fare and cheesey pop tunes. The brainchild of house administrator Susan Livingston , a longtime "Seinfeld" fan, the Cabot House party is one answer to Harvard's traditional dilemma of how to celebrate the holidays in an age of diversity and multiculturalism.

"Students have always been welcome to celebrate any and all holiday traditions," says Livingston. "It's just that in the past, things got, well, unpleasant."

Festivus helped neutralize the holiday anxiety, according to Livingston. Plus, it's a hoot. And nobody feels terribly constrained about sticking to the script, either. "Although there are always jokes about arm-wrestling the house master," she says.

Salkin, too, has been impressed by how creatively fans have built upon the "Seinfeld" blueprint. Pastimes like washing-machine tossing, Frisbee golf, limbo , and the crowning of Miss Festivus have become popular. New Fesitivus carols crop up every year, he notes. A special "Seinfeld" contest on "Jeopardy" featured a whole Festivus category. Can it be long before department stores put up aluminum poles in their accessories department s ? Office parties pause for the Airing of Grievances?

"People in the real world are modifying Festivus all the time," Salkin says. "It's a holiday even Michael Richards can't kill."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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