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The Real-Life Christmas Grinches Who Steal Lights, Ornaments, Trees—Even Baby Jesus

A house decorated for Christmas. (Photo: Nickolay Khoroshkov/shutterstock.com

Every year plastic Santa Clauses, wooden reindeer and other novelties are extracted from storage and arranged on lawns to anoint the Christmas season. But may we suggest some  accessories that might accompany them? Zip ties, motion-sensor lights, GPS trackers, steel rebar posts driven deep into the ground, and locks that seal decorations to electrical outlets—these would all make great stocking stuffers.

Where there are decorations, there are decoration thieves and waging war on their efforts has become as much a part of the holiday tradition as untangling lights. Decoration devotees swap tips on message boards about the best infrared camera setup to invest in, now to arrange for police drive-bys, and the right chain and stake system for strapping nativity sets to the ground.

Still, the Christmas spirit (even with reinforcements) does not always prevail.

A Christmas tree in a public square in Lithuania. Christmas trees are historically a popular target for theft. (Photo: Andy Wright/flickr)

Christmas trees are historically a favorite target for holiday thieves. In 1923 a Christmas tree and all its lights were boosted from outside the Dudley Street Baptist Church in Boston. According to the United Press International, the pastor blamed “mischievous boys” and “advocated a good spanking rather than a jail sentence if they were caught.” A six-foot fence didn’t deter highly motivated thieves from liberating a Brooklyn church of its 24-foot Christmas tree in 1929. This was just one of a rash of Christmas tree thefts in the area that year; The New York Times reported that at least five other trees had vanished under mysterious circumstances.

Such crimes persist today. In 2012 thieves took the extra step of cutting down a live 7-foot fir tree from in front of a family’s home in Weston Coyney, England.

“I’ve got half a mind to put some lights on the stump anyway, just to stick two fingers up at the thieves,” Chris Walker told The Sentinel.

(The newspaper could not resist an arboreal pun: “Weston Coyney Couple Stumped by Christmas Tree Theft”.)                                                

Tree theft has grown so robust, law enforcement probably yearns for the day when six pilfered trees constituted a crime wave; the cost of such acts growing in tandem with ambition.

Christmas lights outside a house. There are internet forums devoted to security against theft of Christmas decorations. (Photo: Michael Bentley/flickr)

In 1988 a man in Florida absconded with 258 trees and the trailer they were on. The suspect was nabbed but the trees remained at large. The purported tree-napper was charged with “grand theft of a trailer and Christmas trees”. In 2015, two men stole over 100 Christmas trees from a farm in Chesham, England. In Arlington, Vermont, two men suspected of stealing 335 trees from a farm turned themselves into the police. Burglars in Kendall, Florida hauled off two trailers filled with $35,000 worth of trees.

Tree theft has become so common creative steps have been taken to thwart it, including spraying trees down with fox urine or the malodorous secretion of skunks.  In Ireland, police conduct air patrols to deter theft.

Trees, of course, are not the only ornaments that capture the attention of seasonal criminals. In 1938, the incensed mayor of Rye, New York offered to pay a $100 reward out of his own pocket for the return of an 8-foot red candle made out of sheet metal that disappeared from the public green. The people of Rye took such thievery seriously. “The persons responsible must be pretty contemptible,” the village clerk told The New York Times, “Woe to the thieves if we catch them. They will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” In a gruesome turn, an 8-foot Christmas star was taken from in front of a Ballwin, Missouri home in 1997 and replaced with a garbage bag with a dead animal inside. Occasionally, such thefts are recorded for posterity: This year, Teeside, England CCTV cameras captured a man stealing a 3-foot Santa, four snowmen, and a gnome from a local home. A San Antonio woman’s surveillance camera recorded a bold thief who pulled up to her house in a truck, unplugged her giant inflatable Snoopy lawn ornament, and drove off with it.

A nativity scene. (Photo: psJeremy/flickr)

But perhaps the most pilfered of all Christmas totems is the Lord Savior himself, baby Jesus, who is frequently kidnapped from nativity scenes. (Baby Jesus’ desirability is such that he puts those in his company at risk for abduction, including the Virgin Mary and Belle from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”.) Occasionally, such thefts make for lurid headlines. There was the time Baby Jesus was replaced with a severed pig’s head, sparking the FBI to initiate a hate crime investigation. In 2014, a topless female activist snatched Baby Jesus from a manger in Vatican City.

Inflatable snowman house decoration. (Photo: Kevin/flickr)

This year already brings numerous reports of Jesus Christ vanishing from mangers. In Seattle baby Jesus’ have disappeared from church nativity scenes, but are also frequently stolen from stores, according to retailers. A church in North East, Pennsylvania is the victim of a serial Jesus-grabber; this year the figurine was recovered, buckled into the front seat of a police cruiser, and returned. A Texas thief apparently had a fit of guilt and returned a stolen Christ child to its owner. So often does he go missing, exasperated churches have taken to outfitting the savior with GPS trackers. BrickHouse Security in New York identified in Jesus-theft a business opportunity and kicked off the “Save Jesus” campaign in 2005, dolling out trackers to churches and other organizations.

Although perpetrators may chalk Jesus theft up to mere prankery, pastor James Carney told Seattle news station KIRO that the stakes were high.

“I think,” he said, “Being candid, your mortal soul’s in danger.”