Christmas Wars 2004: Hostility or eBay?

OK, here is THE strangest story of the week.

I think it is. I hope it is. I pray. The Christmas beat can't get any stranger than this, can it?

What we have here, according to reporter Kari Lydersen of the Washington Post, is a trend story -- only no one is quite sure what the trend is. The headline is very, very mild: "Seasonal Displays Being Looted: Hostility to Religion Or Profit Motive?" As a former copy editor, I can tell you that this must have been one of those stories when the folks at the desk struggled witht the temptation to come up with a more creative, colorful headline.

Why? Here is the opening of Lydersen's story:

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?"

Oh my. Environmental activists kidnapped baby Jesus? The mind doth boggle.

Anyone out there want to try a few headlines on that one? Let's try combinations of five to seven words. Just do it.

The manger raiders hit another house nearby. The local police chief is working on several other similar cases. Sure enough, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is on the case as well and says it has logged twice as many reports of Christ-nappings this year as in years past.

What's it all about? Has the wrath of the blue-zone faithful come to this?

There are two basic theories. The first says that this is an expression of hostility toward Christianity, or conservative Christians, or Catholics, or evangelicals, or somebody like that. There are no reports of this specific crime -- baby Jesus theft -- taking place at U.S. nativity scenes in which a George W. Bush figure serves as a wise man or shepherd. I'm still checking that with Google.

Then again, there may be another way to explain this "trend" -- the digital marketplace.

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."

Then again, another case was more primal -- baseball-bat swinging teens hit one house five times in seven days. The police report could not confirm whether the culture warriors were were listening to Eminem's "Mosh" on headphones while carrying out their crimes. OK, I made that part up.

What is the world coming to? At the life-sized Nativity scene in Chicago's Daley Plaza, they have padlocked the baby Jesus to the manger with a metal cable.

That makes sense. Anyone out there heard anything that can top that?

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