Mornings In Michigan is our new series about morning rituals from across the state. Most days Republican State Senator Rick Jones gets up at 5:30 a.m. to have coffee with people in his district, but for a week before Christmas, he changes up that routine.
Michigan Radio’s Cheyna Roth tagged along as Jones continued his annual tradition of setting up a nativity display outside the state Capitol building in Lansing.
I met Senator Rick Jones on Saturday morning as he pulled into a parking spot near the Capitol. It was 26 degrees.
"It’s not too cold today," he said. “The first day I did it, it was seven degrees. And it was really cold. This is really not bad."
First, Jones wanted to see if he'd need to get out a snow shovel. He had to do some shoveling on that first morning earlier in the week.
Rick Jones is a boisterous senator with an easy, booming laugh. He’s not usually one to shy away from a microphone, and he’s been known to introduce a lot of bills on a broad number of topics. He represents the district west of Lansing.
Jones zipped up his Michigan State University jacket and opened up the back hatch of his wife’s SUV. The display is too big to fit into his car.
Jones has been doing this for four years now, and people have noticed.
“The first day I set it up, I had people say ‘You’ve got Mary on the wrong side. Last year you had Mary on the other side,’” he said, chuckling.
Jones is happy to work this into his morning routine. He says it puts an extra pep in his step, in part because he loves the home of the Michigan Legislature.
“This is beautiful in the morning. Very peaceful here, looking at the Capitol.”
How Jones became the overseer of a Capitol nativity scene boils down to one word: Snaketivity.
“I felt that if we were gonna have a Snaketivity on the lawn, we should have a Christian nativity,” he says.
Let me back up. In 2014, the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple displayed a controversial tableau on the Capitol lawn. They called it Snaketivity. It was a big plastic snake wrapped around a sign that said, “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.” It was a commentary on how church and state should be separate.
A religious group wanted to put out a nativity in response, but they didn’t have the time. Enter Senator Jones.
“I felt challenged, and I wanted to make sure that we had a nativity up also,” he says. “Also last year we had another group – Followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – and they put up a flying spaghetti monster. Basically it was two mop heads and two balls painted to look like meatballs. I think they were making fun of us, but that’s OK.”
Anyone can put up a display. There’s also a menorah out this year. The state Capitol Commission does have some ground rules, though. You have to have a permit, and the permit only lasts seven days. The displays can’t be left overnight, so Jones has to set it up in the morning and then take it down each night.
“And it can only be this size that we have here, the three-by-three [feet]. People bash me, ‘Why don’t you put more figures in? The wise men, the sheep and donkeys?’ Well, that’s because this is the only size we’re allowed.”
This has become not just a part of Jones’ mornings for a week, but a part of his holiday tradition. While Jones only has a year left as a state senator, he'd like to see the Capitol nativity continue.
“I’m hoping to hand this off to somebody else who wishes to do this when I’m termed out,” he said.
After the manger scene was all set up, we made the final trek back to the street. Jones had a grandson eagerly waiting for his grandpa to take him to see Star Wars.
As we parted ways, Jones had a smile on his face.
"Have a wonderful day, and Merry Christmas.”
Cheyna Roth is Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network. This audio piece was edited by Sarah Hulett and produced by Lauren Talley.
We want to hear from you! Share the sights and sounds of your Michigan mornings. Find out how at michiganradio.org/mornings.
Music featured in this story: "I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" by Matt Norris & the Moon (c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/