A short story by Judy Gerlach published in the Daily Advocate, Greenville, Ohio, 12/15/14.
(Note: The following is based on actual events that occurred in the late 1960s in my home town of Greenville, Ohio. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.)
Life in a small farming community usually means that nothing bad ever happens locally that’s worthy of front-page news. Except maybe the time the pig farmer got caught cheating about his pig’s weight at the county fair. Other than that, the quaint little Ohio town where I grew up was quiet enough to lull a rooster back to sleep every morning. During the holiday season, the townspeople of Greenville simply had so much Christmas spirit that one couldn’t turn a corner without being greeted by a cheerful smile and an exuberant “Merry Christmas!” From the day of the Christmas parade until well past the New Year’s celebration, wreaths with bright red bows adorned the snow-frosted windows of every storefront, and “Peace on earth, good will toward men” permeated the air.
As a high school student, I had nothing but the fondest memories of Christmases past. The joy of the season had always brought out the very best in everyone…until one fateful Christmas when Santa had no choice but to mark a wayward soul’s name on his “naughty list.”
That fall from grace occurred about a week before Christmas when a local churchyard nativity became the scene of a shocking theft. The thief had stolen (gasp!) the baby Jesus figure right out of his manger bed while the Mary and Joseph figures looked on! This “two-lumps-of-coal-in-your-stocking” crime not only disrupted a long-standing tradition of the church, but the very nature of it was enough to uncurl an elf’s toes!
Though hardly on the same scale as a grinch stealing everything that has to do with Christmas, turning a churchyard nativity into a crime scene was still a mouth-gaping episode definitely worthy of front-page news in our local paper. I remember shaking my head in disbelief when I read the story and saw the photo of the empty manger. I suspect it must have jingled quite a few bells throughout town because it certainly wasn’t long until the news set the townspeople to buzzing about who the perpetrator of this dastardly deed might be. It was Christmas, for crying out loud…who would do such a thing?
After days of talk and speculation, the thief still remained at large. Neighbor questioned neighbor, and classmate suspected classmate. The mood became so dark it nearly withered up all the mistletoe. Everyone, it seemed, had a different idea about how to punish the grinch should he ever be found. “That scoundrel should be tarred and feathered with prickly holly leaves,” I heard one person say. “Two lumps of coal in his stocking would be too good for him,” another citizen declared. And on and on it went for days.
As Christmas approached, the manger remained empty, and the “Merry” seemed to have faded from the normally jubilant yuletide greeting. Once happy faces grew long and, come to think of it, Rudolph’s bright red nose no longer illuminated the toy store’s window display. While out caroling with a group of friends from church, I noticed that it just didn’t feel the same. We paused as we passed by the scene of the crime, each of us wondering about the whereabouts of the newborn King. Would the Christmas bandit ever be caught? Boy, would I like to give that fruitcake a piece of my mind.
The next day, in spite of the unsolved mystery, a bit of Christmas cheer had returned to the long halls of my school, but that was most likely due to the fact that we’d soon be out for holiday break. As the day progressed, little did I know that a most peculiar revelation would soon come to light…
At a dance band rehearsal, a curious group of students gathered around one of the trombone players. Eyes were wide with wonder and hands covered gaping mouths as everyone peered into an open trombone case. The trombonist appeared to be quite proud of something. Had they seen a partridge fly out of a pear tree? Not quite. Lo and behold, tucked snugly in the large bell end of the case, the stolen Baby Jesus lay – no crib for a bed and no hay!
Time froze like Arctic ice, and every nutcracker soldier stood motionless at attention. Breaking the spell, the band director worked his way over to see the evidence for himself and stood there for a few minutes rubbing his chin while he contemplated the situation. And, if I’m not mistaken, even the sugar plum fairies stopped dancing long enough to await the judge’s decision. Now for the big question: what was he going to do about it?
“I’m going to trust you to return the baby to the manger and leave it exactly as it was when you took it.” The director, starting to sound like the Chief Elf in charge of the North Pole, thought some more. “And here’s the real challenge: you’re going to do it without getting caught!”
And so it was – the crime was solved and judgment had been pronounced. The rest was merely a matter of trust and forgiveness. The trombonist accepted the challenge, but was he remorseful? Perhaps a little. Was he eager to get his name removed from Santa’s naughty list? Maybe. Would he really do it? I wasn’t going to hold my breath.
The next morning the townspeople awoke to a delightful flurry of snow, and those of us who knew the identity of the thief waited eagerly for our afternoon papers to arrive. Spirits soared higher than Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve when we saw the front-page story with the headline “Thief Has Change of Heart, Returns Baby Jesus.” The grinch who’d tried to steal our Christmas had kept his word and was back in Santa’s good graces. And he’d done it without getting caught!
Once more the town was all abuzz about the mysterious reappearance of the central character of Christmas – such good tidings of great joy! And was it just my imagination, or did I really hear a multitude of the heavenly host singing “Hallelujah!” during the night?
On that one winter’s eve a wrong was made right, and all was forgiven. Isn’t that just like Christmas? It is, after all, that special time of year when human hearts are transformed by the spirit of the season. As neighbors returned to greeting one another with smiling faces, we soon forgot that a Christmas crime had ever been committed, and “Peace on earth, good will toward men” echoed gleefully across our little town.