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A Festivus for the Rest of Us

By December 18, 2017 2 Comments

The Christmas holiday makes some people nuts. Seriously nuts. There’s a reason why George Costanza’s father, Frank, decided to reject Christmas in favor of a holiday of his own making, “Festivus.” The Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Strength seem like relatively common features of most holiday gatherings already, so making them key components of Festivus makes sense to me.

But the part that really floors me is the insistence on tradition during the holidays. Why do we do this? Because it is tradition. But is that a good enough reason to do something? And how far back must something go to be considered a tradition? One generation? Two? Three? The way that people became so upset about a Starbucks cup (or upset at the people who were upset) makes me wonder why some ‘traditions’ matter so much to some.  After all, traditions have always been selective, culturally accommodating, and historically contextualized.

George Pender wrote a charming piece for Atlas Obscura about some wild Victorian traditions during the Christmas holiday. Apparently the game of Snapdragon was quite rowdy and dangerous:

“Traditionally played on Christmas Eve, players of Snapdragon must find themselves a broad, shallow bowl, and then prepare to risk their health. Into this bowl should be poured two dozen raisins. If raisins are hard to come by, almonds, grapes or plums will suffice. You should then pour a bottle of brandy into the bowl so that the raisins bob up and down like drowning flies. Place the bowl on a sturdy table, turn the lights down low, and then, with appropriate panache, ignite the brandy.

To play Snapdragon, arrange your family and friends around the blazing bowl so that their faces are lit in a demonic fashion and then, one by one, take turns plunging your hands into the flames in order to try and grab a raisin. If you can accomplish this, promptly extinguish the flaming raisin by popping it into your mouth and eating it.” 
There was even a variant: “Flapdragon—in which a lighted candle was placed in a mug of ale. Participants sought to drink from the mug without setting fire to their beards, mustaches or hair.” As Pender dryly observed, “fire was to the Victorian era as Netflix is to our milksop age.”

Does’t that sound like fun? Sure, maybe your uncle might singe his bushy eyebrows or your brother might need to trim down his hipster beard, but what better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than a rowdy game that resulted in blistered lips and some minor burns?

Maybe the real question about Christmas or any holiday is what are we celebrating and why are we celebrating it?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Isn’t it fascinating to be a historian and to poke around in traditions! 😉

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebekka, for your insight into tradition. I would think that the significance and importance of a tradition depends on who is maintaining the tradition. Some traditions will mean nothing to you, but to others, a tradition cuts to the heart of a person. The lighting of Menorah candles may hold great significance for the Jew, whereas the lighting of Advent candles is significant for the Christian for obvious reasons. Holding the long standing tradition of Santa Claus is very important to families with young children. Most American families find putting up a Christmas tree to be significant for a variety of reasons. And it gets repeated year after year. It’s obvious that the tradition of the Christian Christmas held no significance for Frank Costanza, so the Festivus pole was his way of making a statement and starting a new tradition for those who didn’t buy into the Christian Christmas. So, go nuts with your traditions and I hope they enrich your life (although maybe not mine).

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