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More than just pranks to many

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Our family sat down on a Thursday night in December 1967 to the familiar strain of “Dah-de-DAH-dah” that marked the start of “Dragnet,” a then-popular TV detective show.

After reminding viewers that the story we were about to hear was true, only the names were changed to protect the innocent, police Sgt. Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon began to investigate the theft of a Baby Jesus statue from a church Nativity scene on Christmas Eve.

Despite their best investigative skills and what they thought was a solid lead, they were stumped by the theft.

Father Xavier, the parish priest, was equally mystified and saddened because of the decades-old statue's sentimental value to parishioners.

As Friday and Gannon returned to the church empty-handed, a young boy headed toward the parish, pulling a wagon containing the statue; he said he prayed very hard for a new wagon for Christmas and promised, if he got one, to give Baby Jesus the first ride.

To a child of that time, on the cusp of understanding life, the world appeared to be turning onto its head. The Vietnam War and race riots in Newark, Detroit and Minneapolis drove the evening news; so did an upended culture and speculation about our nation's youth, after hundreds of thousands of them converged on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district for a “Summer of Love.”

As television often does, “Dragnet” manipulated our deepest fears of what the world was coming to — heathens stealing Baby Jesus because they hated God, the country and us — only to turn around at the end and gently scold us for believing the worst.

Real life is not so tidy. Neither are emotions and fears.

Stealing Baby Jesus is nothing new: In 1966, the Fariniski family of Irvington, N.J., put a sign in their home's outdoor crèche — “Please bring the baby back,” signed with a polite “thank you.”

In 1959, both Jesus and Mother Mary were stolen from a department store display in Dallas on Christmas Eve; 10 years earlier, Jesus was stolen from an Anniston, Ala., church.

In fact, thieves have targeted crèches at churches, homes and town squares for nearly 100 years. The thefts do not signal the end of our culture but just an annual prank, and the stolen Baby Jesus typically is found unharmed a few blocks away.

Last week, at an upscale coffee shop, a group of women were laughing at the local outrage over the theft of a Baby Jesus in Western Pennsylvania. “You'd think it was the end of their world,” said one of them, as the other five nodded in unison.

They never considered that, to the victims, perhaps it was.

A local law enforcement official said that, while many such thefts are a regrettable but predictable occurrence, at this time of year the impact on people or a community outweighs the statue's monetary value.

“The theft serves as a symbol of all of their frustrations that have accumulated over the years,” he said. “They are told, over and over again, that God needs to be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance or out of Christmas celebrations at their children's schools.”

For the victims and their communities, those thefts are the final straw, he said. “It represents all of their dissatisfaction with the elites' view of the world and their insistence that Main Street values bend towards theirs.”

Worse yet, the victims often are told that their values have been passed over by the world or are viewed as hate-filled, exclusionary or racist.

The old “Dragnet” episode from 1967 was a remake of another “Dragnet” version done in 1953; besides being the only “Dragnet” storyline made twice, it was the only one not actually based on a real police case.

Baby Jesus isn't the only thing stolen from people's front yards or from city squares. It is interesting to note, however, that when Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, a snowman or a Santa figure is taken from any property, the sense of outrage is less emotional, less disturbing, to everyone involved.

“Now think about that,” said the officer.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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