Festivus Not for All of Us

Illinois State Capitol celebration not funny to some

In the world of the TV sitcom "Seinfeld," Festivus is a goofy, high-tension Christmas substitute dreamt up by George Costanza's angry dad. Revelers gathered around an aluminum pole and couldn't leave until someone pinned the head of the household to the floor.

Festivus is still good for a laugh among "Seinfeld" loyalists, even 11 years after the episode was first broadcast.

Funny, but nobody's laughing much about the Festivus pole that popped up under the dome of the Illinois Capitol this week.

Not the people who set up the nearby nativity scene.

"I think it's a mockery," said Dan Zanoza, chairman of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee.

Not the atheists who set up their own Capitol display.

"If the state's going to create a forum for religion at this time of year, which we do not approve of, this is what's going to happen," said Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Even the 18-year-old who created the pole isn't laughing much. State workers, he gripes, set it up too far out of the way for anyone to see.

"I'm halfway thinking about complaining about the location," Michael Tennenhouse said.

Festivus was, after all, a holiday built around the airing of grievances.

"I got a lot of problems with you people!" Frank Costanza told family and others gathered for his odd, uncomfortable holiday. "And now you're gonna' hear about it!"

Illinois' Festivus tale opened with the atheists' gripes over Zanoza's nativity. The Freedom from Religion Foundation won permission to put up a sign after the nativity went up early this month.

"There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell," the sign reads. "There is only our natural world."

The Madison, Wis.-based group has set up similar displays around the nation, including one in Olympia, Wash., that caught the attention of Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly and led to protests by his viewers.

"It doesn't make sense to have a public forum for religion in December in a state capitol," Gaylor said. "It just clutters everything up."

The chatter about the issue gave Tennenhouse the idea. The high school senior and member of the American Civil Liberties Union is home in Springfield for a break from his Lake Forest boarding school.

His parents reluctantly contributed the aluminum handle from their swimming pool skimmer, and Tennenhouse and his 13-year-old bother, Matt, applied for a permit to put up a Festivus pole in the Capitol.

The state, much to Tennenhouse's surprise, didn't turn him down.

Nathan Maddox, senior legal adviser with the Illinois Secretary of State's office, says the state couldn't legally deny Tennenhouse's right to free expression.

So, on Tuesday, up went the pole, along with a printed poster that included an e-mail address, friendsforfestivusgmail.com, and a message that reads, in part:

"Although Festivus is traditionally celebrated Dec. 23, the people of Illinois have had to begin 'Grievance Airing' early this year. Hopefully we can conclude Festivus before February."

Tennenhouse's message is part political, he says, noting the reference to the corruption charges facing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And it's a little ideological -- the teenager says the Capitol is no place for religious symbols.

But something else was at work in Tennenhouse's plan: boredom.

"I'm here for three weeks and I really don't have much else to do."

Zanoza wishes Tennenhouse had found something -- just about anything -- else to do.

"I give more credence to the atheists' sign," said the 55-year-old Zanoza, who lives in Lincoln. "At least they represent a position, a belief, or a lack of belief."

Gaylor doesn't mind the Festivus pole, as long as Illinois insists on allowing holiday symbols into the statehouse. But she counts her blessings that she lives in Madison -- Wisconsin's capital.

"The nice thing here is we do not have a nativity," she said. Tennenhouse and his brother went to the Illinois statehouse Tuesday, just to gauge the response to their blue aluminum pole. There wasn't much, he said, because it's tucked away in a corner of the rotunda where few people are likely to see it.

Maybe that's OK, he says. Even a little humorous.

"Ours is kind of ridiculous," he admits. "I think it's kind of funny that it got up there."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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