Festivus Spirit Runs Especially Deep in Wisconsin



By Susan Lampert Smith

December 23, 2021

Buy a Milwaukee-made Festivus pole, air your grievances at Great Lakes Distillery, or see an “unadorned and lustrous” decoration at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

You might wonder why the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archives even collected museum object No. 2007.84.A-C.

It’s not huge, like the fat boy hoisting a burger that adorned Big Boy restaurant signs; nor fast like Tommy Bartlett’s ski boat; nor old, like the 1,200-year-old Ho Chunk canoe recently discovered at the bottom of Lake Mendota and currently soaking in a bath of preservatives.

It’s a plain aluminum pole, manufactured to be the centerpiece of Festivus, the Dec. 23 holiday made famous by a 1997 episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld.” In it, Frank Costanza, the character played by the late Jerry Stiller, claims he made up the holiday as “Festivus for the Rest of Us,” proclaiming that its traditions include the “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength.”

Its centerpiece, Frank Costanza proclaimed, would be an “unadorned and lustrous” aluminum pole “with a very high strength-to-weight ratio.”

RELATED: Aluminum Christmas Trees? They’re a ‘Home-Grown’ Wisconsin Invention.

And nearly 25 years after that episode first aired, people are still celebrating this non-holiday at places such as Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery, where they’ll be serving “Stop Crying and Fight Your Father” punch in honor of George Constanza’s horror at his father’s holiday.

And fans are still buying Wisconsin-made Festivus poles. 

“Would we have it in the collection if it hadn’t been made by a Wisconsin company? Probably not,’’ said Joe Kapler, the historical society’s lead curator of cultural artifacts. “Of course, there is also the provenance. This particular pole was once on display at the state executive residence.”

Joe Kapler the Wisconsin Historical Societys lead curator of cultural artifacts shows off the societys Festivus pole which once sat in the governors mansion Photo by Susan Lampert Smith

Yes, Wisconsin’s aluminum contributions to the holidays aren’t only the Sco-coasters and Evergleam aluminum trees made in Manitowoc. We’re also the home of Wagner Companies, a Milwaukee aluminum railing manufacturer that has had a long run of churning out festivus poles for people who find tinsel distracting. The company sold 200 in 2005 and more than 1,600 the following year. 

This very pole was once gifted by the head of Wagner Companies to former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who in turn gave it to Gov. Jim Doyle, who put it up at the governor’s mansion in 2005.

Doyle told the Capital Times that year that he thought Festivus was popular because “it gets at some very universal qualities.” 

“How many of us have sat around a holiday dinner and seen the grievances aired … from years ago by brothers and sisters?” he added. 

Doyle said he didn’t think the State Capitol would erect a Festivus Pole in the Rotunda, although he did note “there’s a lot of airing of grievances that goes on down there.” 

Oddly, Wisconsin’s Capitol did not adopt this holiday tradition. However, in 2013 a Florida man (of course) erected a Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans in Florida’s Capitol to protest state-sponsored religious displays.

In Wisconsin, Doyle ditched his Festivus pole in 2006 after the actor who played Kramer on “Seinfeld” made racist remarks in a comedy routine. Doyle donated the item to the historical society, where it rests today, as strong and unadorned as the day it rolled off the assembly line.

“Is it the most important piece in our collection? No,’’ said Kapler. “But it is a cool piece of Wisconsin-made furniture.”

And if that bothers you, it might be time for an airing of the grievances. Or, as Frank Costanza would say, “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about it.”


CATEGORIES: Our Wisconsin


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