Bye-Bye Baby Jesus!
Cruel holiday spirit leaves sad, empty mangers

The Christmas spirit finally snaked its way into my heart when this yuletide season's reports of missing holy infants began filling America's newspapers. The tales were so rich, so earnest -- as if these childish pranks were the work of Satan himself -- a sure sign that terrible plagues will come with the new millennium. No longer fodder for a snide metro columnist like the late Mike Royko of the once-great Chicago Tribune, the theft of a $1.29 hollow Christ figurine is now treated as the New Columbine.

See also...
... by Ken Layne
... in the Scope section
... from December 14, 1999

The Tribune actually ran this melodramatic idolatry in its December 7 edition: "Terrance Hodges climbed over the wooden rail fence encompassing the Christmas manger scene in the Daley Center Plaza on Monday and placed a stark black-and-white sign at the center. It would answer the question of hundreds of passersby who wondered aloud why a crèche would be without its most important figure."

Hundreds of passersby? Don't these people have jobs? And if so, why don't they just buy another toy Jesus? Why not have a stockpile of Christ babies for every public nativity scene? Build a trapdoor with a conveyor belt -- steal a Jesus, up pops another Jesus. Passersby can continue on without bothering Hodges, the guy who oversees Daley Center's tiresome Xmas diorama.

Hodges, a member of the self-proclaimed "God Squad" that inflicts the nativity scene upon Chicago each year, claimed the plaster gewgaw cost "well into the four figures" and was made in Italy. Well, having been to Italy and having seen Tijuana-class Jesus figures everywhere, I can only guess he was referring to a price based upon the mysterious Italian currency known as the Lira, which currently trades at four figures to the dollar.

In Charleston, West Virginia, and Tacoma, Washington, it was the same pathetic story. Somebody grabbed the baby and the town went berserk. "Why," they ask, "why oh why?"

Why? Because as long as there are people who worship a piece of baby-shaped factory-made junk with a hole in its ass for the lightbulb, there will be people waiting to take it away.

There is nothing as seductive and cheaply rewarding as the callous theft of a plastic baby Jesus from an outdoor nativity scene. Maybe those without spiritual training don't see the fun of snatching Christianity's most sacred icon of innocence and grace, but the Jesus freaks certainly see the horror -- and that's what really counts.

I enjoy Christianity -- especially the Orthodox and Roman churches with all their crazy lizard hats and candles and those little golden smoke-machine deals. I've read the Hebrew and Christian bibles many times, and there's some good stuff (especially all the books between Exodus and Psalms, which are mostly about rape and terrifically savage hand-to-hand combat). And anyone who actually tries to follow Jesus' civil disobedience/Marxist style of pissed-off hippiedom has my respect and admiration.

But the ones who freak out when the Holy Baby goes missing are the same bogus clowns who start jabbering about "putting the Christ back in Christmas" while they listen to Handel's "The Messiah" drunk on Prozac and eggnog and give brief annual consideration to the possibility of burning in Hell forever. That's why we steal nativity babies.

Think about it: When you steal a baby Jesus, it's almost like the little Nazarene died of crib death, or was aborted in some filthy clinic on the wrong side of Bethlehem. It's as if we were spared the whole insane history of the Church with its inquisitions, endless wars, witch trials, massive corruption, Jew massacres and Dark Ages system of keeping the dumb folks down with a load of intolerable fear and gloom.

Swiping the infant replica wrecks the souls of thousands who just can't figure out how anyone else could find this so funny. You could steal one of the wise guys or a sheep, or even Joseph, but nobody would write a newspaper article, and passersby wouldn't weep in the streets. And nobody ever had any respect for Joseph in the first place. ("I swear, Joseph, it was God what done it! And He says I'm still a virgin 'cause of how he done me.")

In the Jesus theft from Tacoma's Day Island, the pranksters did take Joseph, and an angel, and maybe other things. Did anyone care? No. The outrage was saved for the plywood Jesus. And, as is often the case, the figure was eventually returned.

In a noir-esque twist, Jesus' kidnappers in Chicago sent an anonymous tip to the cops, and the figurine was found -- "apparently unharmed," according to the Tribune -- in a locker at Union Station. The cops, dedicated to fighting real crime, are studying a videotape of the locker area.

But the tape is screwed up because of German-food vendors blocking the camera. Really. The Xmas tradition in Daley Plaza is to have this Jesus thing, and a Hanukah menorah, and German food. Something for everybody.

Yes, it is fun to steal Jesus babies, and yes, I have done it. Once I tried to take the baby and found him bolted down, so I broke off his head. And back in 1985, I thought I'd surprise my roommates by constructing a very special Nativity scene for a holiday party. In California, there used to be these rotten discount merchandise stores called Pic 'N Save -- inside, I found an ugly, splintery wooden set on display, about 2 feet long. Vandals had taken or broken all the figures, although most had been glued down. The hay had been ripped off the manger's roof. Jesus was long gone, as was Joseph, and half of Mary. So were two of the three wise men, and various animals (with only their broken little legs remaining). It was just a few days before Christmas. I decided to save this sad holiday scene.

In the toy aisle, I found these Transformer insect-robot guys. They were about the size of the missing sheep and donkeys and whatever, so I selected several. Then the mother lode: A Christmas Papa Smurf to serve as Jesus' dad. Lt. Uhura from Star Trek, in 3.5" action-figure size, would stand in for the Virgin. A pair of bulbous angels from the Ms. Pac-Man game were hired as the official heavenly cherubs -- they even had small loops sticking from their heads so I could tie them with thread and have them hover around the manger. And then the jewel: An E.T. pencil-eraser thing -- as in, the Extra-Terrestrial creature from the Spielberg movie -- that was perfectly sized to fit in the crib.

I bought everything, despite the cashier's reluctance to sell me a busted-up nativity scene when there were perfectly good boxed sets on the shelves; I made a scene, offered four bucks for the ruined set, and they moved me along to avoid trouble. Back home, I worked hours getting it just right, then set it atop the stereo cabinet, with a special dusting of real cocaine (not very good cocaine) for a festive wintry feel. The guests loved it -- except for one of my roommates, who suddenly and violently revealed herself to be a serious Christian of some kind. She left in tears, and I felt bad for a while, until someone handed me a margarita.

Ken Layne's column runs every other Tuesday on GettingIt.