MILWAUKEE — Festivus is every year on December 23, and the essential item used to celebrate is made here in Wisconsin.
For fans of Seinfeld, Festivus is legendary. It’s the holiday Frank Costanza, played by the late Jerry Stiller, created to subvert the commercialism of Christmas. In real life, it was created by Dan O’Keefe, whose son Dan O’Keefe Jr. was a writer on the show.
“A Festivus for the rest of us!” Stiller famously shouted at Kramer, while explaining the origins and traditions of the holiday.
The Festivus episode aired in 1997, Seinfeld’s ninth and final season. But more than two decades later, there are dedicated fans who celebrate Festivus every year.
At any Festivus celebration, the centerpiece is the pole. Stiller’s character described it as “made from aluminum, very high strength-to-weight ratio.”
In 2005, staff at Wagner Metal Works in Milwaukee realized they could make the poles themselves.
“Those first years, we were selling a couple thousand a year,” said CEO Bob Wagner. His Festivus pole stays in his office year-round.
They’ve had people from as far away as Australia order poles. One man paid $24 for the pole, and three times that amount just to ship it.
There’s even one in the state capitol building for the holidays, complete with a line to text to air your grievances.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is a huge Festivus fan.
“I heard Governor Doyle enjoyed Festivus. And so I sent him one at the state house,” Wagner said. “Because it was a gift, he couldn’t take it with him. After he left, he sent me a check for the cost of a Festivus pole, and I sent him another copy.”
Doyle’s first Festivus pole is now in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wagner Metal Works owns the copyright to the term “Festivus pole”. They’re the only ones in the country with the legal right to use it on branded items. They’ve even owned the domain name festivuspoles.com.
Wagner has given other distributors permission in the past to use the phrase. Still, you can find all kinds of Festivus products that may contain a pole, but don’t necessarily say “Festivus pole”.
Seinfeld has been off the air for almost 25 years, but Festivus lives on.
“It shows the reach of television, it shows the reach of the shows,” Wagner said. “And the fact that it's such a clever invention, that it has created a life of its own.”