The war on Christmas, it’s been well documented, is not a real thing.
Though there are disputes about whether or not it’s rude to say “Merry Christmas” to the less than 10 percent of Americans who don’t celebrate the holiday, and debates on how celebrating Christmas officially in public schools and public squares might violate the religious disestablishment set up by the First Amendment, Christmas is not under attack. Christmas is a cultural colossus. Consumerism is sanctified for Christmas in America, the sacral is consumed, and it’s a cultural event of such enormity that resistance is futile. A real war on Christmas would be impossible.
And yet, there are raids on Christmas. There are sneak attacks on Christmas. There are those who, stealthily, creeping past the watchful eyes, guards and surveillance cameras (and all the rest of the Christmas defense apparatus), strike a blow against the holiday.
These are known as baby Jesus thieves.
In North Dakota, baby Jesus thieves have gotten so bold that some hardware stores selling nativity sets have taken to keeping the Christ child behind the counter. As Archie Intersoll reports for the Pioneer Press: “At Scheels Home & Hardware in Fargo, the earthly father and virgin mother — a holy family set for $74.99 — sit on a shelf adoringly hovering over a small sign that says, ‘PLEASE ASK FOR BABY JESUS.’ For several years, the store has kept its baby Jesus statuettes off the retail floor because of experiences with shoplifters.”
This isn’t a new thing, nor is it confined to the far north.
In Schuylkill Haven, Penn., a home health care agency protects its nativity scene with a four-foot wire fence. The $500 baby Jesus is kept out of the manger, safe from thieves, until Christmas Eve. The owner told the Republican Herald‘s Amy Marchiano last year that if Jesus is stolen again, despite these preventative measures, he’ll be replaced again, because “this is the real reason for the Christmas season.”
While no one tracks the actual number of baby Jesus thefts every Christmas season, in 2013 nativity robbery and vandalism was reported from California to Minnesota to New Jersey to New York, where the theft was investigated as a possible hate crime. One Boston crèche has been robbed three times in nine years, according to the Boston Globe.
A New York security company garnered a bit of publicity by offering free GPS trackers to implant in baby Jesuses, which wouldn’t deter thieves, but would enable recovery. The theologically questionable name for the promotion was “Saving Jesus.”
Some thieves do get caught and face consequences. Sometimes serious consequences. Three 19-year-olds were arrested for stealing the nativity scene from a Methodist church in Forest, Va. in 2012. They posted a picture of themselves with the nativity scene to Facebook and were quickly caught. One was sentenced to a year in jail for the crime, while the other two spent 60 days in jail, did community service and gave the church $500 each.
The 19-year-olds described the theft as a prank and pretty much everyone agrees baby Jesus theft is meant as a joke, whether or not they think it’s funny.
“It really is just not funny at all,” said a Catholic monsignor in Indianapolis, after two drunk 26-year-olds were arrested heisting a nativity at his church. “What can you say? Just, simply no things are sacred any more.”
It’s arguable, though, that it’s that hint of sacrilege that makes it funny. In Fargo, where the thieves have not been caught, the crime was credited to “delinquents who surely have a rich sense of irony.” Stealing the baby Jesus is different than other petty theft in its potential for irony. It is a provocative act, in ways most other thefts aren’t. It has the power to upset monsignors and other religious authorities and the kind of people who pay $500 for a representation of an omnipotent God born as a poor baby in a barn with animals who say, seriously, “this is the real reason for the Christmas season.”
Baby Jesus thieves literally take the Christ out of Christmas. When they do, it becomes apparent that the sacred object is also a piece of property, protected by the law that protects property and this whole apparatus that defends Christmas: fences and lights, tracking devices and private security companies, patrolling police and the courts. The commercialization of Christmas is visible here in a way it might not be, otherwise. That’s the power of the joke.
Stealing the baby Jesus can seen as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, which is to say against Christmas, since the theft, as a theft, shows how indistinguishable the commercial and religious aspects of this American holiday really are.
This isn’t, of course, a real war on Christmas. It’s kids and drunks acting out. It’s stupid. It’s a feeble protest in the face of the dominance of this holidy. More than 80 percent of Americans buy gifts to give on Christmas, according to Pew. Nearly 80 percent put up a Christmas tree, 65 percent send cards, and more than half attend a religious service. More than 70 percent of Americans grow up with visits from Santa Claus. Even among the small segment that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, a majority say they gather with friends and family on that holiday. Stealing the baby Jesus is a stupid prank, not a threat to this way of life.
But it’s because of this stupidity, and not some other reason, that if you want to pay $74.99 for a nativity scene in Fargo, N.D., you have to go find a clerk, and like the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew, ask where you can find the one who has been born King of the Jews.