STAUNTON, Va. — Putting the spotlight on a political action committee's message of living together in peace restored electric power to its holiday light display one day after organizers of the lights festival pulled the plug.
What happened Monday caused a “sad and bad situation" during what was supposed to be a time of celebration, Thelma Newman, chairwoman of the nonprofit Celebration of Holiday Lights Committee, said Tuesday. She characterized pulling the plug on the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Action Movement's "Coexist" light display on the event's opening night as a "misunderstanding with some of the committee."
SAW Action designed its light display in the style of a bumper sticker that has been available for several years with symbols for world religious movements, such as a Star of David for the "x," an Islamic crescent for the "C" and a Christian cross for the "t."
Tens of thousands of cars drive through Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park from the Monday before Thanksgiving to New Year's Day to see the celebration's light displays, and the free event that has been held since 2006 is considered a tourist attraction. Groups, businesses and families pay $25 to participate.
The "Coexist" display was unplugged because it wasn't Christmasy enough or holiday themed and included a "Love trumps hate" yard sign next to it, Newman said.
"This is a holiday light display in a public park," Angie McMillan of Staunton posted in USA TODAY's Facebook comments, noting later that the switch would be flipped back on Tuesday night. "The ironic thing is there are several non Christmas displays including a 'Loc Ness Monster' display in the duck pond."
City officials said Tuesday they don't have any direct involvement in decisions to illuminate or unplug a display even though Gypsy Hill is a city park and taxpayers are paying the electric bill for the 43-day event.
“We haven’t made it a habit of getting involved in the events of private organizations," city spokeswoman Ruth Jones Turner said.
Member Jennifer Kitchen of the SAW Action Movement, the nonpartisan political and social activism group that created the "Coexist" display, said it would have been nice for Staunton officials to make a firmer stand for inclusiveness, but she understood the legal position the city was in.
"What does peaceful coexistence have to do with Jesus?" Terri Javarey Hodson of Harrisonville, R.I., asked on Facebook. "Besides everything."