Many years ago, just as television was turning from black and white to colour, a very special episode of a show called Dragnet aired. It was Christmas Eve 1953, and in it, a man called Sargent Friday finds himself summoned to a local Catholic church to investigate an apparent burglary. The item in question? Somebody, it seems, has run off with the congregation’s nativity statue of the baby Jesus.
One can never be sure where bad taste comes from. Mine is intentional. I love cheaply made B-movies where the guy that falls off the building is obviously a mannequin, and the scenes don’t always make sense. At Christmastime this carries over into kitschy nonsense I can’t help but empty my wallet for. Take, for example, my new sweater, complete with large golden bells and a llama that’s wearing a toque (as llamas often do) whilst singing “falalalallama” for some beautiful reason. And is that a hipster-looking Jesus, wearing a birthday hat, blowing out the candles on his cake? I’ll take it! A t-shirt with the baby Jesus riding a tyrannosaurus rex with the words “let’s party like it’s year 0” written above his head? Sure, put it on my gift list. I love all that stuff. The more horrible, the better.
Not everyone agrees with me of course. In fact, few probably do. And I’m sure some of these tacky items originated from people or companies without the purest of motives. Some people likely look at a fun little book I have, Dancing with Jesus, complete with instructions about doing the “Temptation Tango” and think exactly what that Catholic priest did in the old Dragnet episode: “Somebody stole Jesus!” Many probably see it as just another part to the ever-growing conspiracy to “take Christ out of Christmas” or at the very least to flip the narrative away from the holy. There may be some truth to that, as a secularized and sanitized Jesus is also a very popular Jesus.
Now let’s be clear: people do indeed steal Jesus out of the nativity scene both figuratively and literally. In fact, there is even a Facebook page devoted to finding baby Jesus figurines that have “walked away.” It’s true as well that television shows do things to Christmas that surely leave Christians wondering what happened to their saviour, with nearly every Christmas episode following a storyline where the characters eventually learn the “true meaning of Christmas.” This “true meaning,” of course, has nothing to do with Christ. He is stolen right out of the manger; never to be heard from.
As Advent begins to give way to Christmas morning, I find myself ruminating more and more on the words “somebody stole Jesus.”
It used to bother me quite a lot when I saw someone “steal” Jesus. I used to detest seeing a cross worn as a fashion statement instead of an expression of faith. It used to anger me to hear my favourite television characters tell me that the “true meaning” of Christmas is “being kind to your neighbour” or “spending time with people you love.” But not any longer. Now I even kind of like it. Sure it’s not the full picture, but much like those tiny communion cups with just a hint of that most blessed wine, it’s a taste of what else can be.
At the end of that old Dragnet episode, everything turns out okay. The show concludes with the emergence of a small boy – the culprit. It’s all rather innocent. The child simply took the baby Jesus out for a ride in his new wagon.
When I see tacky Christmas stuff, I don’t get upset anymore. Instead, I’m happy that people feel invited to participate in this deeply important Christian Holy Day, no matter who they are or what they do (or do not) believe. I’m happy that even if people just get a small taste of what Christ can offer, that they use that morsel to treat people better, to be kinder to their neighbours, to care for others, to donate to people in need. And if Jesus riding a dinosaur puts a smile on your face, or more hopefully, sparks what could be a very fruitful conversation, then I say buy it! Nobody stole Jesus. Because you can’t steal what’s freely offered.