For the Williams family of Fort Collins, Colo., it isn't Christmastime without a lighted baby Jesus in the front yard, nestled in hay and surrounded by adoring, illluminated parents and shepherds.
But over the weekend, baby Jesus and Mary were kidnapped from the traditional nativity scene, shocking the family and neighbors in the suburban neighborhood. The crime was particularly surprising because the figurine of Mary had been nailed down.
"Somebody has taken something so precious to us, that holds memories for us," said Sandy Williams, whose family has had the display for more than 40 years. "They don't hold memories for anybody but us."
Local law enforcement officials around the country say thefts from holiday displays are an unfortunate but familiar occurrence this time of year, and, unfortunately, the items are difficult to recover.
"It's not uncommon to have vandalism to displays during the holiday season," said Fort Collins Police Department spokeswoman Rita Davis. "And many people don't report it when Rudolph gets taken from the front yard."
The Williams family reported the incident but did not want to press charges.
Around the country, many families and religious institutions have opted to chain or nail down their displays, install surveillance cameras or even adopt GPS technology to keep track of objects that might go astray.
"Normally police have a difficult time dealing with property theft, and some people think it's because police don't care about theft of small objects, even if they're of a religious nature. But it's not that police don't care, it's that they rarely have the ability to act," said Todd Morris, founder and CEO of BrickHouse Security, which sponsors a program called GPS Jesus.
Morris has donated dozens of GPS devices to nonprofit groups for installation in their holiday public display objects. The company then works with local law enforcement to recover the property if something is stolen.
"If somebody moves baby Jesus, e-mails and text messages go out to several people from our server and we can check with them to see if there's a problem, if he should be moving, if he shouldn't be moving," he said. "If they call us and say we can't find him, we will log on while on the phone and interface with local law enforcement to help them track down baby Jesus."
Morris said most thefts from nativity scenes are committed by people who either have malicious intent toward the particular church or are teenage pranksters out for a thrill.
Williams, who says the items hold significant sentimental value, just wants the baby Jesus returned. "I don't hold any ill will to whoever did it. I just want it back," he said. "Bring it back in the middle of the night. I don't care."