When Baby Jesus disappeared last year from a Nativity scene on the lawn of the Wellington, Fla., community center, village officials didn't follow a star to locate him.
A GPS device mounted inside the life-size ceramic figurine led sheriff's deputies to a nearby apartment, where it was found facedown on the carpet. An 18-year-old woman was arrested in the theft.
Giving up on old-fashioned padlocks and trust, a number of churches, synagogues, governments and ordinary citizens are turning to technology to protect holiday displays from pranks or prejudice.
About 70 churches and synagogues eager to avoid the December police blotter jumped at a security company's offer of free use of GPS systems and hidden cameras this month to guard their mangers and menorahs.
Others, like the Herrera family of North Richland Hills, Texas, have taken matters into their own hands. Upset after their teeter-totter was stolen, the family put surveillance cameras in the yard and was surprised when footage showed a teenage girl stealing a Baby Jesus worth almost $500. Police have obtained the tape.
"They took the family Jesus," said Gloria Herrera, 48, who is Catholic. "How can anybody do that?"
For two consecutive years, thieves made off with the Baby Jesus figurine in Wellington, a well-off village of 60,000 in Palm Beach County. The ceramic original, donated by a local merchant, was made in Italy and worth about $1,800, said John Bonde, Wellington's director of operations.
So last year, officials took a GPS unit normally used to track the application of mosquito spray and implanted it in the latest replacement figurine. After that one disappeared, sheriff's deputies quickly tracked it down.
Sensing opportunity, New York-based BrickHouse Security is offering up to 200 nonprofit religious institutions a free month's use of security cameras and GPS products. Chief executive officer Todd Morris said the idea was born after a few churches asked about one-month rentals instead of longer contracts. The first 20 or so applications came from synagogues.
Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of Lubavitch of Center City, a Philadelphia-area branch of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, signed up even though his previous biggest scare involved the wind, which had knocked down a menorah. "People are very security-conscious, and this is simply a precaution," Goldman said.
As members of a minority religion, Jews may be hit harder when their religious symbols are vandalized, said Deborah Lauter of the national Anti-Defamation League.
"If Baby Jesus is removed, it tends to be seen as a prank," she said. "Vandalism or theft of a menorah is just more sensitive. You feel like you're really being targeted for your religion."
The ADL identified 699 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007.
So far in 2008, Baby Jesus has appeared in several police reports. At First United Methodist Church in Kittanning, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, a Jesus figure was stolen and replaced with a pumpkin. In Eureka Springs, Ark., someone who absconded with a plastic Jesus from a public display also took the concrete block and chain that were supposed to act as a deterrent.
Previously, stolen Jesus figurines have also been defaced with profanity or Satanic symbols. That raises a question: Is stealing Baby Jesus a juvenile antic, or an anti-Christian act?
"I suspect most of it is childish pranks," said attorney Mike Johnson of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group. "Clearly, there are adults with an agenda to remove Christ from Christmas. But they tend to occupy themselves with the courts and courtroom of public opinion."