To recap: In a 1997 episode of the NBC sitcom, the high-strung patriarch of the Costanza clan, Frank (played by Jerry Stiller), claimed that he had conjured up Festivus after a fistfight with another shopper over a doll. Three canons of Festivus were established: An aluminum pole (no tinsel!) replaces the Christmas tree; the year's grievances are aired over dinner; and after dinner, the feats of strength commence, culminating with the head of the household challenging each family member to a wrestling match. The holiday officially ends when the head of the household is pinned to the floor.
But Donovan has bastardized Festivus. The Kansas City graphic designer and illustrator knows she's not supposed to decorate her aluminum pole, but she tops it with a little leopard-print hat anyway. She doesn't celebrate Festivus on the traditional December 23; hers is a floating holiday, observed in either January or February (as long as it doesn't coincide with Mardi Gras). And she has dreamed up a mascot, the Festivus Faustine, an all-inclusive mutant creature with body parts taken from numerous holidays.
"It is a Cyclops woman with a Christmas tree body and a Star of David eye and nine candles on the top of her head for Hanukkah," Donovan explains. "Oh, and a corncob in her hand for Kwanzaa."
Her unorthodox observance led Allen Salkin, author of Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, to spend four pages detailing her eccentric exploits.
"People all over America saw the Seinfeld episode and understood that there are three essentials to Festivus: the aluminum pole, the airing of grievances and the feats of strength. And as people all over celebrate the holiday, they've all embellished to some degree or another these rituals, but Julianne has taken it to the most entertaining extreme," says Salkin, whose book project grew out of a New York Times piece he published about people who actually celebrate the holiday. "Particularly in the area of the feats of strength, Julianne is brilliant."
Donovan didn't want her living room trashed by a bunch of bawdy brawlers, so she replaced the traditional wrestling match with a thumb-wrestling tournament and built a miniature ring to contain the tenacious tussles. And she cut the thumbs off old gloves to create menacing masks with evil, misshapen eyes.
Misery comes with thumb wrestling. Only one person can claim the cape the ultimate thumb-wrestling prize. The losers, well, their spirits are crushed for the rest of the evening, Donovan says. "There's some tears at Festivus ... and some laughter ... and blood. Sweating, there's definitely sweating."
Other feats of strength include an outdoor hula-hoop contest, a contest to determine who can hold his or her head in a bucket of ice water longest (last year's winner stayed under for three minutes; he was a former swimmer), and a competition to see who can hold a weight in an outstretched arm longest. Obnoxiousness is encouraged. So is cheating.
At this year's party, held February 26, grievances swirled around two topics: parking at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and President George W. Bush. The night culminated with a round of spin the bottle, possibly leading to later tests of strength and endurance.
"I want to keep it random, and I want it to be a different atmosphere than most parties," Donovan says. "Most parties, you walk in and people are just standing there in their own little groups and nobody wants to talk to anybody out of their group. And they're all too cool to talk to you because of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
The idea came to Donovan three years ago when she was working in the marketing department for a grocery wholesaler. Not everyone in her office celebrated Christmas, so Donovan suggested a Festivus party. Most of her co-workers thought the idea was great (though a few quietly protested). After she left the company, the party persisted and grew.
Two weeks ago, Donovan was in New York City showing off her thumb-wrestling skills in her newly built wrestling ring as part of Salkin's book-release party at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble. About 300 people showed up, she says, and the store sold out of the book. Jerry Stiller, who wrote the foreword, read excerpts about Festivus' origin, and Donovan thumb-wrestled Stiller's wife, Anne Meara who trash-talked Donovan's "kinky" wrestling costumes.
"Less talk and more wrestling," Donovan says she told Meara before pinning her in the first fall. Meara cried foul, claiming Donovan had cheated.
She has yet to decide on a date for next year's party, but she's thinking about renting a place and opening the festivities to all comers though she fears cops and tear gas. And she's been trying to talk Salkin into coming to her next party, but he has yet to commit.
"The winds of Festivus are myriad and confusing and wonderful," Salkin tells the Pitch. "I certainly hope they blow me across this great country of ours and deposit me in Kansas City come Festivus time."