My friend Dan* and I already had a sheep, a wise man, and a candy cane in the trunk when we pulled up in front of Tom Rallie’s** farmhouse.
The car idled on the state highway shoulder in front of the white split rail fence, a quarter of a mile from the manger scene in front of the Rallie family barn. The scene was lit with a giant spotlight, an impressive silhouette of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus illuminated as three shadowy humps on the wide red barn doors. Above them, an electric star gleamed. It was arguably the most prominent Nativity display in town.
Dan turned to look at me solemnly. “I want to do this for you,” he said.
Then, he threw open the passenger door and started running across the field, plowing through the shin-deep snow and completely clearing the fence in one leap. He was back in fewer than four minutes with two white plastic pieces, the manger and baby Jesus meant to lay peacefully on top.
For the past few nights, Dan and I had been cruising around our small Indiana hometown. We’d made off with two Jesi from the trailer park where I grew up. Another friend, who had been along for the ride one night, had swiped an enormous green-robed wise man in a fit of desperation when she unplugged the wrong set of cords connecting light-up plastic Nativity figures to an outdoor socket.
In my bravest moment, I’d grabbed the baby Jesus from a local church’s display, which fully faced one of the busiest highways in the area. I got out of and back into the car in under a minute.
But most important to this story is the fact that we weren’t teenagers. By the time we realized we wanted to spend the holidays stealing tacky lawn ornaments from unsuspecting strangers, my friends and I were about 20, home from college for winter break, and obscenely bored.
Dan hurled himself and Tom Rallie’s baby Jesus into the front seat of my waiting Toyota Tercel as I threw it into reverse. The wet Jesus lay on my lap as I stepped on the clutch. Dan was frantically brushing snow from his jeans as the car lurched, then stopped. I looked at him, horrified.
We were stuck in the snow bank.
“If I get out and push, they’ll see me!” Dan shrieked as he jumped back out the car anyway. I looked around, panicked. There wasn’t anyone on the highway for miles. It was after midnight on Christmas Eve. Everyone was seemingly back from late-night church services and in for the night.
The tires crunched and squealed as Dan pushed on the big teal egg of a car. I alternated between trying to rock the car out of the snow and worrying I’d back over my friend.
At some point, I felt it give, and Dan came racing back around to the front. We peeled out without speaking. What’s there to say in a moment like that? Is it how bank robbers feel when they’ve narrowly missed being pulled over for a busted taillight?
Next year, we vowed to leave something in the place of the Jesi, maybe stuffed monkeys as a Darwin nod or non-white baby dolls to make some vague point about gender, race and religion. But we never did it again. We got older and less bored.
After poaching such big game, we retired from manger scene theft. The collection of plastic people and props was divvied up. We left a few in random places on later road trips. We put a Jesi in a Waco, Texas phone booth and a sheep in a parking space in a Ramada garage next to LAX. We regretted not keeping track of where each object had been snatched. Perhaps we could have left little tags on them.
If found, please return to [original address].
The wise man was eventually stolen from a friend’s porch. It wouldn’t be right to say we felt ripped off.
I still have Tom Rallie’s Jesus in my trunk, a pilfered guardian angel. He goes everywhere I go. Obviously, this thief needs His guidance more than the people who put Him in their yard.
*All my best prank stories involve my friend Dan.
**Name changed because it isn’t his fault I stole his Jesus. And no, I’m not ever giving it back.