Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza, neurotic (but inventive) retiree
Queens, New York, Tuesday, December 23, 1997
Episode: “The Strike” (Episode 9.10)
Air Date: December 18, 1997
Director: Andy Ackerman
Created by: Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Costume Designer: Charmaine Nash Simmons
Fed up with the materialism around the holidays? Do you wish the holidays were less about forgiveness and cheer and more about directly telling people what they’ve done to upset you over the past year? Happy Festivus!
Seinfeld writer and story editor Dan O’Keefe took inspiration for one of Frank Costanza’s shining moments from his own father, Reader’s Digest editor Daniel O’Keefe, who had founded the secular holiday of Festivus in the late ’60s. Unlike Frank, who had spitefully created the holiday after a discouraging Christmas, the elder O’Keefe founded Festivus with the more benign motive of commemorating his first date with Deborah, the woman he would marry. The O’Keefes reportedly celebrated Festivus sporadically, or “whenever the hell my dad felt like it, September to May,” as Dan O’Keefe recalled in a Washington Post Q&A. “One year there was none. One year, there were two.”
Once the Seinfeld writing team learned about the holiday from O’Keefe’s brother, they dragged the full background from a reluctant O’Keefe before it was repositioned as the perfect vehicle for Jerry Stiller’s brilliantly bombastic portrayal of Frank Costanza:
And at lunch one day, Danny O’Keefe started talking about this tradition that his father made him do instead of Christmas—this whole Festivus thing he and his brothers had to endure—and Alec and I just looked at each other. Because we knew how great that was going to be for Frank. We said to Danny, “You know we’re doing this on the show, right?” And he goes, “No one’s going to want to see that.” And I go, “Danny, you can write the script with us, or you can watch it on television, but we’re doing it.” It was such a great opportunity to have Jerry shine. An airing of grievances? Who could ask for anything better for Jerry Stiller?
— Jeff Schaffer, former Seinfeld writer, to Max Cea for GQ
Given what we know about the Costanza family, the origins of Festivus would require some alternation to suit Frank’s neuroses, as we learn when a perfervid Frank outlines his conceptualization to an eager Kramer:
Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reach for the last one they had… but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way! … out of that, a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!
Seinfeld had always taken a more casual approach to its Christmas-themed episodes, the holiday serving as more of an incidental backdrop to controversies surrounding marked-down cashmere sweaters, provocative holiday cards, and a commie-curious Santa. Thus, it’s fitting that Seinfeld‘s most memorable holiday episode—and perhaps one of its most lasting episodes of all time—should center around a holiday invented as an alternative to Christmas.
In tribute to Jerry Stiller, who died this May at the age of 92, let’s take a moment during this surreal holiday season to bask in Frank Costanza’s grievances.
What’d He Wear?
December in Queens is no time for Frank Costanza’s famous cabana shirts so the cantankerous retiree dons a maroon knitted cardigan that, despite his best efforts, arguably taps into the seasonal festivities beyond his own invented holiday. The sweater is paneled into vertical strips as well as a strip extending from each side of the neck, across the shoulder, and down each raglan sleeve to the ribbed cuffs. Five flat pearl sew-through buttons close up the front from the straight hem to mid-chest, where the sweater opens up into a V-neck. The cardigan has two welt-opening pockets on the hips.
With his wardrobe of leisure suits, wide ties, and cabana shirts, Frank Costanza likely hasn’t gone shopping for new clothes in about 20 years, still proudly sporting his broad-collared, chaotically patterned disco-era shirts in the 1990s.
On Festivus, Frank wears an ice-gray shirt—almost certainly made of polyester or other manmade fabric favorites of the ’70s—with wide slate-colored bar stripes generously spaced to make room for columns of a repeating pattern that appears to consist of a double-headed arrow (⇕) with a coil around the center. (If there is a name or significance for this particular shape, please let me know!) The shirt has a long-pointed collar that would have been fashionable around the time it was originally sold as well as a front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
Frank tucks the shirt into his khaki flat front trousers, forgoing the belt loops in favor of a set of suspenders (braces) made from a muted khaki cloth that nearly matches the pants he clips them onto.
Frank wears his usual steel watch, plated in yellow gold and secured to a black leather strap, as well as the gold wedding band symbolizing his marriage to Estelle (Estelle Harris). His shoes remain unseen throughout the entire episode, but it would be reasonable to assume he’s foregone form in favor of function (and comfort) with the somewhat clunky brown napped leather moc-toe derbies that he wears with similar outfits in other episodes.
The shoes seen in “The Raincoats” (Episode 5.18) are a likely contender, detailed with tan laces and tan soles and worn with white socks. These types of shoes, which tend to be targeted toward the Frank Costanza demographic, are often marketed with terminology like “walking shoes” and “comfort oxfords” (despite boat shoe-style derby lacing).
How to Celebrate
Jerry: When George was growing up, his father hated all the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas, so he made up his own holiday.
Elaine: Oh, and another piece of the puzzle falls into place!
Jerry: And, instead of a tree, didn’t your father put up an aluminum pole…? Then weren’t there feats of strength that always ended up with you crying?
In the more than 20 years since Seinfeld brought Festivus to the world’s attention, an abundance of articles, books, and websites have been dedicated to the peculiar holiday originated by the O’Keefe family. I’ve found Festivus! The Website to be a particularly comprehensive digital resource, exploring every aspect of the holiday’s on-screen observance from the dinner prepared by Estelle (meatloaf on a bed of… lettuce) to the plain aluminum pole that Frank fished from his crawlspace. No decoration, of course, as Frank “finds tinsel distracting.”
“We never knew when it was going to happen until we got off the school bus and there were weird decorations around our house and weird French ’60s music playing,” Dan O’Keefe explained to Mother Jones in 2013.
The music sadly seems not to be an element of the Costanza family celebration, which begins with the famous “airing of grievances” as Frank outlines to Kramer:
At the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year!
The concept of a holiday centered around outlining your disappointment in family and friends may seem too true to Frank Costanza’s character to have not been invented for the show, but it was indeed part of the O’Keefe tradition as members of the family would dictate their complaints into a tape recorder.
O’Keefe’s recollections also include occasionally wrestling with his brothers though he was never forced to pin his father, for “if [he] had, [he] would’ve been raised by the state of New York,” as he explained to CNN in 2013. Frank, on the other hand, wraps up the Costanza observance with a demand that his son defeat him during the annual feats of strength before Festivus can conclude:
And now, as Festivus rolls on, we come to the feats of strength. … Until you pin me, George, Festivus is not over!
How to Get the Look
Should you feel so compelled to channel Frank Costanza for your Festivus celebration…
- Maroon knitted panel-strip raglan-sleeve cardigan sweater with five flat pearl plastic buttons, ribbed cuffs, and hip pockets
- Ice-gray polyester shirt with alternating slate bar stripes and coiled double-headed arrow motif, with point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Khaki flat front trousers with belt loops and side pockets
- Khaki cloth suspenders with gold-toned hardware and clips
- Brown napped leather moc-toe derby shoes
- White socks
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold-finished steel wristwatch on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the entire series, currently streaming on Hulu. You’ll have some good times.
You can also read writer Dan O’Keefe’s history of the holiday in his 2005 book, The Real Festivus.
Welcome, newcomers! The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances… I got a lot of problems with you people! Now, you’re gonna hear about it!