Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet gathered Tuesday morning outside of the Governor’s Office for the lighting of the state Christmas tree. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam presented the Virginia Pine grown on the Havana Christmas Tree Farm in Gadsden County.
The tree joins the Flying Spaghetti Monster display and a winter solstice greeting from the Freedom from Religion Foundation at the Capitol building. A Festivus Pole, which started a Florida tradition of displaying unconventional holiday icons near the Great Seal of the State of Florida, is scheduled to be erected December 15 for a one-week display.
The International House of Prayer Tallahassee, the Florida Prayer Network/Florida Nativity Scene Committee, the Satanic Temple Florida, American Atheists, and Tallahassee Atheists have all had display applications approved for the holiday season.
Chaz Stevens created an uproar last year when he petitioned the state to be allowed to display an aluminum pole made from empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans and representing a fictitious holiday at the Capitol. He said in his attempt to put a display up at the Capitol Rotunda he has found state bureaucrats to be “very helpful, very polite, very friendly.”
“What is really interesting is that last year I got beat up not by religious folks but by the Festivus purists who believe in an unadorned pole,” said Stevens about fans of the TV show Seinfeld, which created a Festivus holiday. “Fortunately, a writer for Seinfeld whose father actually came up with the idea for the Festivus Pole in the 1960s told a Philly paper it was really interesting that Stevens came up with this idea because my father drank Pabst Blue Ribbon all his life. It was kind of a cool little coincidence.”
Stevens said he picked Pabst because he liked the colors.
“Listen, my friend, when you think Jesus Christ, I want you to think Pabst Blue Ribbon – it’s as simple as that,” said Stevens. “A Pabst Blue Ribbon Festivus Pole is an utterly ridiculous statement used to speak out about another utterly ridiculous thing which is the government allowing religious symbols on public property.”
The Flying Spaghetti Monster display features rope shaped like a blob of noodles enclosing two poorly formed plastic meatballs (?) and a green paper Mache dinosaur. It comes with a sign encouraging one to be “not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. Jeremiah 10:2”
Andy Opel, a professor of communication at Florida State University, said the inclusion of a Festivus Pole, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and satanist’s display at the state Capitol is an example of American pluralism.
“In a world where fundamentalism is increasingly corrupting civil society – whether in the Middle East by recruiting the young and uneducated into jihadist violence or here in the U.S. by altering textbooks and distorting the science of evolution . . . we need to remember that the U.S. was founded on pluralism, not fundamentalism,” said Opel. “Finally, by fully accepting diverse religious displays in public spaces, we affirm our commitment to the separation of church and state, publicly stating that no religion will be imposed on citizens by our government and public officials have a solemn duty to represent all citizens’ interests, not just the familiar of faith or the friendly with favors.”
Stevens and others were moved to petition the state for access to the Capitol last year after Nativity scenes were displayed at state buildings.
The Florida Department of Management Services guidelines for displays are that they cannot block walkways or be grossly offensive. Last year the Satanic Temple display was deemed offensive but it has been approved this year, with no comment from DMS. Another change this year is the one-week limit and a $100 fee for not removing a display in time.
Putnam said he finds granting permission for whimsical displays like a Spaghetti Monster and or Festivus Pole a sign of a healthy sense of humor.
“I think having these silly displays reflect that our faith tradition is strong enough to roll with it,” said Putnam about the unconventional displays sharing space with a manger and Christmas tree. “We honor our faith tradition and we have a nod to a pluralistic form of expression that is exhibited in a rather silly form and Floridians are smart enough to get the joke.”
Stevens said it didn’t start out as a joke but he did roll with it. Here is his 30-second account of how a Festivus Pole, a symbol of a fictitious holiday, became a Florida icon.
“The City of Deerfield Beach, my hometown, they would put up at the main intersection of downtown Deerfield Beach, if you will, they would put up a Menorah and manger. And it was like, hello? Separation of Church and State and they would go,’ uh hello? Go away.’”
“So three years ago, I decided if you can’t beat them, join them. I asked to put a display and they said, sure, what is it? And after much consternation and thought on everything ranging from Santeria where you cut chickens’ heads off and all sorts of crazy stuff we came up with the idea of something that was fun and would not be offensive – wouldn’t scare a 5-year old, right?”
“It had to be family approved and we came up with the idea of a Festivus Pole and I got the city approval of that. So, I did a little research on Festivus Poles and you can go buy them – there are people up in Milwaukee and they sent me one last year out of the graciousness of their heart – I’m looking at right now, as a matter of fact.”
“I decided someone would pick (steal) that pole in a heartbeat. SO I got together with my lawyer, a guy by the name of Tommy Wright, and Tommy and I came up with the idea making one out of beer cans. It’s aluminum and there it is.”
“So we went down to the local Target, walked down the beer aisle and said what’s a good beer? Oh hell, it’s Pabst. There’s the genius of the whole idea.”