Little Jeff Stern looks like a cherub as he bounds toward the car. He is fourteen years old, newly a man by the standards of our religion, but also not an inch above five-foot-one or a stone over a hundred pounds. I can’t remember if his braces had been yanked yet. He stops in front of the car, holding a wooden sheep in the Heisman Trophy pose. The headlights of the car are no match for the incandescent beam of adolescent mischief. He jumps into the car and we quickly speed away while Jeff laughs uncontrollably, his voice cracking.
Late December is a dangerous time in Houston, Texas. At night, the temperatures drop into the low 50s and the shorter days drive the last of the Gentiles–the amateur gardeners and lacrosse tossers–indoors to watch the college bowl games. Through the windows they can often be seen engaging in whatever mysteriously affectionate traditions the Christmas season brings. But in their yards, they–the goyim themselves–are replaced by their wooden avatars, characters of the elaborate nativity scenes that flank the residential streets of Houston this time of year, taunting teenage Jews like us.
Once we’re around the corner, Jake Smolinsky, who is riding shotgun, flips on the light to check our inventory. In addition to our sheep, we’ve got one Mary, one angel, one middle-aged man–we are split on whether it is a Joseph or a wise man–and a few more animals from the mangers. But as exhilarating as our minyan of liberated statuettes is, the centerpiece is still elusive. And in the service of our mission, we are duty-bound to be completists. In other words, we need to find a baby Jesus and steal it.
Once he finally stops tittering, Jeff explains that the baby Jesus at the last nativity scene was tied down and could not be pinched. It was the same at all of the other houses: the child-king was swaddled, twined, or chicken-wired into the ground. Even now, at 1 A.M., the Gentiles infuriate with both their kitsch and their prowess for crafts.
Stealing baby Jesuses is not just a pastime for the Jewish teens of Houston and, no doubt, the Jewish teens of myriad other American places; it is a rite of passage. By now we’ve come to terms with the fact that, despite our greatest hopes, we will never have a Christmas tree. We know that all the carols we hear on endless loops around town (sometimes performed at our very doorsteps) will never be our songs. It’s not Christmas that we hate, it’s the feeling of being left out.
And Houston, which is famously a city without any zoning, a city where the schools, malls, stadiums, highways, skyscrapers, and residential neighborhoods are all contained within a jumble of sprawl, is a tough place to abstain from Christmas. After all, Christmas is practically the city’s only steadfast organizing principle.
The three of us continued on our mission, unaware that we were being trailed by a constable. He let us pick off one more angel before he shined a bright spotlight on the car. We instantly knew we’d been caught. Jake started to panic, Jeff started to cry. As the driver and the eldest, I tried to act calm and channel the very cool of the guys who took me along to snatch things when I was 14.
I remember the constable was tall and had a long Texas drawl. He gave us a chance to talk ourselves out of trouble. We explained that it was all a joke and that we were going to return everything we took. The constable called our bluff.
“Go on ahead, I’ll follow you.”
We alternated between going into fits of hysteria and conspiring to remember which figurine belonged to which house and where each house was. We weren’t even close. After a few tries, the constable pulled us over again. He’d be following us since the beginning, he revealed, and he had all the addresses of the houses where we’d stopped.
At each of the houses, the constable knocked on the door. And as each porch light came on, we grew increasingly rich in the most dreaded currency of adolescence: embarrassment. In their robes and nightgowns, a little confused, the constable told them all what happened. They each claimed their nativity characters back, glaring at us in their front yards. One woman mentioned that her set had been a hand-carved family heirloom. Another man, a doctor, warned us about the perils of trespassing in Texas. The constable collected their phone numbers and let them know we’d be back to apologize within the next week.
What happened next surprised me the most. Despite the fact that we had broken curfew, stolen property, and stretched the truth, the constable didn’t take us in. Perhaps it was because we never tracked down the elusive baby Jesus, perhaps it was because constables are elected positions. I’d like to think it was the Christmas spirit.
But he did call our parents. Jeff and Jake were grounded. My mother, who was constantly vouching for me when I was in trouble, picked me up. Later that week, she and I went on the extremely uncomfortable task of visiting the houses to apologize. And the baby Jesuses continued to taunt us until January mercifully came and people disassembled their crèches, putting them in boxes by the Easter decorations that would be up a few months later.