Pabst Blue Ribbon - the spirit of Festivus?

Chaz Stevens' creative juices were flowing when he constructed this PBR-can Festivus pole and plopped it in the Florida Capitol.
Chaz Stevens' creative juices were flowing when he constructed this PBR-can Festivus pole and plopped it in the Florida Capitol.
Posted: December 20, 2013

ONE THOUSAND years from this Monday, people around the world will celebrate Festivus by airing their grievances, displaying feats of strength and praising the miracle of a towering pole made of beer cans.

That's the way the rituals of mankind evolve, isn't it? From a simple act - a child born in a manger - to the sacred.

It's been 16 years since the writers of the sitcom "Seinfeld" first alerted us to the wonders of Festivus, the goofy secular solstice festival "for the rest of us." A mere blink of the eye in terms of humankind.

Yet already, the fictional fest has evolved from grouchy Frank Costanza revealing his unadorned Festivus pole ("I find tinsel distracting") to an actual pole erected inside the Florida Capitol, where it joined, in the words of the Tallahassee Democrat, "a manger depicting the birth of Jesus and a . . . menorah in celebration of Hanukkah." Like the fake Flying Spaghetti Monster deity, Festivus poles have emerged as a lighthearted satire of religious displays on public property.

This pole was installed by Chaz Stevens, 49, a self-described political blogger and "professional troublemaker." The silly protest kicked off immediate national harrumphing in the right-wing pundit sector. Fox News called it more evidence of the "War on Christmas" or - in Stephen Colbert's mocking view - the "Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude."

What caught my eye, though, was that Stevens chose to construct his pole with Pabst Blue Ribbon empties.

Were we witnessing an important step in the evolution of a holy day? Strong alcoholic beverages were a component of early solstice festivals. Was beer drinking to become a rite of Festivus, too?

"It's not as magical as you'd assume," Stevens explained in a phone call. The pole, he said, was originally built in 2012 for an outdoor display in his hometown, Deerfield Beach, Fla.

"I got a hold of Allen Salkin [the author of a book about Festivus], and he says it doesn't really matter what the pole is made of: 'Hell, you could make it out of beer cans.'

"So, I figured, why not?

"I drank Pabst in college, the cans look good - they're red, white and blue. I got a case, emptied them, cut off the ends and stacked them on a PVC pipe."

Stevens said he expected complaints from religious groups. Instead, "I got my ass handed to me by Festivus purists" who said the pole should be unadorned.

"The people who really got on me were saying, 'I can't believe you like Pabst Blue Ribbon!' "

(Stevens, for the record, said he gave up drinking a while ago.)

I wondered: Is it proper to build a Festivus pole with beer cans?

For an authoritative answer, I turned to the guy who's generally credited with bringing Festivus to worldwide attention, former "Seinfeld" writer Dan O'Keefe.

It was O'Keefe's late father who conceived Festivus as a family event in the mid-1960s. Other Seinfeld writers caught wind of the tradition, officially set its date as Dec. 23 and introduced it to viewers in a 1997 episode.

First, he said, there was no Festivus pole in the O'Keefe household. That was an invention of the program's writers.

Still, when he heard about the PBR pole, "I thought it was oddly appropriate."

"My dad drank Pabst Blue Ribbon for 60 years. . . . Probably more like 65 or 70 years," O'Keefe said. "In fact, when he switched to Coors Light [later in life] he lost like 55 pounds.

"One of my earliest memories in life is staring at a Pabst Blue Ribbon can, right at eye level, on the dining-room table.

To O'Keefe, Festivus is "an open-source holiday." There is no orthodoxy; you just make of it what you like.

"What's appropriate goes out the window," he said. "It would be impossible to violate the spirit of the holiday because there is no spirit."

No spirit? Does that mean in the year 3013 we won't be celebrating Festivus with a pole made from PBR cans?

"I suspect, in 1,000 years," O'Keefe replied, "Christmas will still be celebrated, but this will be a pop-culture footnote."

Perhaps, but many of today's beer drinkers have already adopted Festivus. There are no fewer than a dozen beers named Festivus, including a full-bodied winter warmer from Manayunk Brewing that is available in cans for the first time this season.

Drink up and build your own Festivus pole.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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