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Cover Story

Daniel O'Keefe, Feb. 25, 1928-Aug. 29, 2012

Father of Seinfeld writer invented Festivus

Daniel O'Keefe, who died Aug. 29 at 84, was an accomplished writer, editor and linguist. He spoke 40 different languages, from Gaelic to Swahili to Tagalog, and he toiled among the likes of Ray Bradbury as an editor at Reader's Digest. In 1983, he wrote a book, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, that was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. But he's not well-known for any of those scholarly pursuits. What he is best known for these days is creating a fake holiday made popular by a TV sitcom.

In the 1960s, O'Keefe made up a non-religious holiday called Festivus in honor of his first date with his wife, Deborah. He and his family celebrated it annually – it could fall on any day of the year, between October and May – with poems, a feast and an "airing of grievances" during which family members could air their complaints, no matter how minor, into a tape recorder.

O'Keefe had a son (also named Daniel) and his claim to fame is the stint he spent working for the hit TV show Seinfeld. The younger O'Keefe introduced his odd family tradition to the world on a 1997 episode in which George Costanza's father, Frank, explains that he created a new holiday – "a Festivus for the rest of us" – in response to the commercialization of Christmas. In the TV show, the characters celebrate with a feast, "feats of strength" and an undecorated "Festivus pole." While the show's Festivus was indeed based on the O'Keefe family tradition, the younger O'Keefe recalled in a book he later wrote about the history of the made-up holiday that there was no pole – the actual Festivus "symbols" were an alarm clock and a paper bag – and that during each Festivus celebration, his father posted a hand-drawn sign above the family's mantel that read "Fuck Fascism."

Since its TV debut, Festivus has become an insanely popular international holiday – during 2012, Google even created a special Festivus pole graphic that appeared on the site every time a user searched the term "festivus." And though it'll forever be associated with a mid-'90s TV show, it was not the fiction of a comedy writer – it was actually the creation of a brainiac dad who was once called by the New York Times' John Leonard "a better writer than Darwin." To the rest of us, though, he'll always be the creator of Festivus.

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