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Seasonal Displays Being Looted

Hostility to Religion Or Profit Motive?

By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A03

WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- The ranch house here where Marc Moxon and his family live is a sparkling winter wonderland: trees garlanded in glittering lights, illuminated plastic penguins, polar bears and other characters dotting the lawn, even a reindeer-drawn sleigh on the roof.

But the glowing plastic Joseph and Mary and the three wise men sitting in front of the house look dejected. The manger between them is empty, as it has been since someone swiped the baby Jesus two weeks ago. Several days earlier, a sign was left at the house asking, "Would Jesus use this much electricity?"

The Popovits family stands with the sign vandals left at their nativity scene. (David Trotman-Wilkins - Chicago Tribune via AP)

"After they left the sign, we weren't that surprised to see him stolen," Moxon said. "We heard they had some [lost Christ figures] at the police station. Maybe we'll go look down there."

Just a block from Moxon's home in this community about 60 miles north of Chicago, another house suffered a similar fate. A jolly Santa Claus is projected on the garage and two reindeer bob their heads on the lawn, but the manger by the front door is empty.

Woodstock Police Chief Joe Marvin said three Christ figures were reported stolen from mangers the night of Dec. 8, and Moxon's household did not report its theft. Two Christ figures have been found discarded.

Just as pumpkins are smashed at Halloween, a number of Nativity scenes fall victim to pranksters every year. But this year the number being vandalized or stolen appears to be higher than usual; the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights says it has logged twice as many complaints as in most years, and more are expected in the days leading up to Christmas.

Some see the rash of stolen Christ figures as indicative of hostility toward Christmas or Christianity.

"There will always be some young people who are drinking who would smash a menorah or a Nativity scene, whatever is there," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, which places a Nativity scene in Central Park and has received several dozen reports of stolen Christ figures from around the country. "But this is happening so much this year, I can only see it as part of the trend of Christian-bashing and trying to stamp out Christmas. It started with the criticism of the Mel Gibson movie ["The Passion of the Christ"] earlier this year. The culture wars are at their height right now, and this is part of it."

But Omar M. McRoberts, a University of Chicago assistant professor of sociology whose book about religion in poor neighborhoods was published last year, thinks the thefts have more to do with economics.

"It's a function of the commodification of this holiday, of the fact that people are competing to have more and more elaborate displays outside their houses and these are things you could get a good price for on eBay," he said. "It's ironic that a holiday which is essentially about poor people having a baby in an animal's food trough is represented with these expensive ornaments."

Some theft victims say it is simple economics. Figures from the Salem United Methodist Church in Barrington, Ill., were stolen from the sanctuary right after they were put on display after Thanksgiving. The Rev. Ann Findley Spurgeon thinks the thief wanted to sell them.

"We don't put Christ out until Christmas or the wise men until the Epiphany [Jan.6], but all the others were stolen -- Mary and Joseph and the animals," she said. "They were expensive figures, so we think someone just needed some money."

Other times the incidents seem purely hostile. A couple in Lockport, Ill., saw their holiday decorations, including their Nativity scene, attacked five times in seven days, at least once by a carload of bat-wielding boys. They finally gave up and took down the ornaments.

"It's just so sad," said Joyce Rakowski, exhausted from talking to local reporters. "We're very sad, and we just want to try to get on with our holidays."

The Christ figure in Chicago's life-size Nativity scene in downtown Daley Center Plaza was stolen this year for the second time in its history. In 1999, a caller identifying himself as "Thelonious Monk" called the Nativity Scene Committee, a group of local volunteers who put up the display, to let it know the missing baby Jesus was sequestered at the downtown railroad station.

This year, police arrested a 19-year-old student shortly after he swiped the Christ figure around 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 5.

"I'm not convinced people are doing it out of hatred," said Jim Finnegan, co-chairman of the Nativity Scene Committee. "In our two cases, it was almost a lark. This time I got a call from the police at 4 a.m. saying they had in custody a boy going to the School of the Art Institute. I think he just wanted it because it was a beautiful piece of art."

Finnegan does not expect the Christ figure to be stolen again this year.

"We have him secured to the manger with a small but very secure cable," he said. "It's padlocked tight. The hay covers that part well enough, so it doesn't ruin the ambiance at all."

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