Stealing Jesus was not my idea. I could never think up anything so heinous on my own. No, Aunt Lynn is the one to blame.
Aunt Lynn never cared for Aunt Sherry, calling her a Loretta Lynn wannabe with fat brown sausage curls and blue sparkle eye shadow. Uncle Edward introduced Sherry to us on Christmas Eve when I was five years old. I still remember the way she looked that evening, decked out in a long red, glittering dress as if she was about to sing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Sherry was a Yankee and when I asked what that meant, my mother whispered, “It means she’s from up North and doesn’t have any manners, Maisy.”
Something about Sherry—her Yankee ways, the loudness of her voice, her inability to cook with season salt, the domineering attitude she treated us with at family functions—got under Aunt Lynn’s tough Texas skin. So when Lynn suggested we steal Baby Jesus from Sherry’s yard one Christmas season, we weren’t surprised. Jesus had been a running joke in our family for years. The plastic one, I mean. See, Sherry lived in the country and when she and Uncle Edward originally moved to the property, they’d had to dig their own septic tank. The endeavor created a small hill and every year Sherry displayed her beloved and worn plastic light up Nativity scene on top of it where it shined brighter than a lighthouse beacon and could be seen by neighbors in two counties.
We often wondered what Jesus would have thought about living on top of the septic tank.
Our Lord and Savior was only a small portion of Sherry’s overall lawn décor. Never one to be light on Christmas spirit, she decorated every inch of her place with holiday crap—Santa on a motorcycle, reindeer that played music, penguins popping out of present boxes, oversized Stars of David’s (although we were rednecks, not Jews).
“It looks like Christmas vomited all over Sherry’s lawn,” Aunt Lynn said every year.
The kidnapping of Baby Jesus set into motion one of the most turbulent times in our family history. Sherry, deep in the throes of a midlife crisis, decided to throw herself a new wedding. Here it was twenty-five years later and she couldn’t be content with just a simple renewal of the vows. No, she just had to do the whole thing over, complete with the original wedding party, which meant the involvement of Aunt Lynn and myself.
“Now, Maisy, you will have to get a new dress. You’ve gotten taller in twenty-five years and definitely won’t fit into your flower girl dress. You used to be so cute, too! But Lynn, I bet if you worked out at the gym for a few months, you’d still be able to fit into your bridesmaid dress,” Sherry told us, casting an appraising look at Aunt Lynn’s already rail thin physique. “Of course, you have aged a little…maybe you could buy some new makeup.”
Lynn and I were not thrilled to be recreating the moment evil came into our lives, and Sherry, who had more blackness in her soul than I realized, took it to far, committing the cardinal sin of all time, the sin that brought me to the dark side, the sin that made it okay to steal one plastic Baby Jesus off of her septic tank hill. She scheduled the wedding rehearsal the morning after Thanksgiving.
To some, that may not make any sense. Why would that matter? But if you are a hardcore purist like myself, the significance of that day needs no explanation. Black Friday. It’s the day the mall opens at 6:00am and widely considered by shoppers to be the most wonderful day of the year. The whole world is on sale or else free stuff is being given away.
My family has participated in this rite of passage for years. We train for it, mentally prepping and honing our ability to snag free things. Three days out from the big day, Aunt Lynn will stake out the mall, getting the layout of things so we can hit the stores quickly and efficiently. A few years ago we really got organized and now have walkie-talkies in order to inform each other of ETAs (estimated times of arrival) and current location. We fan out in the mall, seeing what the deals are, reporting to each other in coded lingo hoping to confuse nearby shoppers. But the most important thing we do is determine which entrances of JCPenny’s we can enter to grab the free Christmas ornament they put out every year. The challenge is to get at least three ornaments per person as keepsakes.
We all have our own technique for accomplishing this mission. My father likes to pull the confused man card, feigning befuddlement over where the ornaments are. Some kind sales person will send him in the right direction and before you know it, he has a coat pocket full of ornaments. No one plays confusion like dad. Personally, I find wearing a coat with big pockets especially effective. I can stuff about four ornaments in each side pocket without being detected.
It was at my Grandmother’s birthday party that Aunt Sherry announced her intention to have her second wedding on Black Friday. She might as well have set a bomb off in the room. Shouts of horror, cries of dismay, profanity from Uncle Todd—it echoed around the room. Sherry listened, big crocodile tears welling in her eyes. She turned to Uncle Edward, put her head on his shoulder and said, “See, baby, I knew it would be like this. They don’t want us to be happy.”
Edward glared at us. A Vietnam vet, he used to tell my cousins and me that he could gut us all with his hunting knife in ten seconds if we didn’t behave. One Christmas he informed cousin Leonard that he’d shot one of Santa’s reindeer in the haunch and that’s why Leonard would not be getting any presents.
“Now, c’mon ya’ll,” Edward said, pushing his tobacco chaw down into his lip where it stuck out like a bee sting. “Sherry wants a nice ceremony with the family. I don’t think it’s too much to ask ya’ll to attend and help out a little. There will be other shopping days but only one twenty fifth anniversary.”
For my Uncle Edward, that little speech was the equivalent of Mel Gibson rallying the troops in Braveheart. We were moved by it, just as those men fighting under William Wallace’s command were moved, and just like those men, we began thinking in terms of war.
War against Aunt Sherry.
We shut up, minded our business, and did as we were told because that’s the kind of family we are, though fear of being gutted by Uncle Edward was a factor in my compliance. When Thanksgiving arrived, anticipation was in the air. Sherry gave us strange looks as we sullenly munched on turkey and cranberry sauce. No doubt she was worried we were acquiescing to her plans too easily, probably having some anxiety that we would spoil everything as we perused the morning paper, which was heavily laden with advertisements for shopping deals that would not be ours.
The following morning, Sherry furthered our disgruntlement by showing up late to the wedding rehearsal. Scheduled for 8:00am, it was another thorn in our side. Why did we have practice the wedding? It isn’t that hard to walk down the aisle. It’s a straight line for crying out loud! To top if off, we were dressed in our formal clothes so we could take pictures that morning instead of that night at the real ceremony. When Sherry swept in, a smug smile on her Yankee face, it only confirmed to us that evil lived deep in her heart.
It was the last straw for Aunt Lynn.
After indulging in five glasses of cheap champagne at the reception, Aunt Lynn revealed her plan. We were going to hit Sherry where she lived, taking one of her most prized and loved Christmas possessions—Baby Jesus. We were to kidnap him from the septic tank, take lurid photographs of him, and mail them to Sherry before demanding a ransom.
“She doesn’t get Jesus back unless she collects ten of the Thanksgiving Day ornaments from JCPenny’s that we missed out on,” Lynn said.
“Oh and they were so cute this year! Did ya’ll see? Little snowmen in a snow globe with cute hats on,” my mother said, her heart genuinely yearning for that lost ornament.
“Ten? Where is she going to get ten? JCPenny’s will be out of stock by now,” Uncle Todd said.
“Who cares? If she doesn’t get the ten, we keep Jesus.” Lynn splashed her glass in my direction. “You still got that car seat, Maisy?”
“Good. We’re gonna need it to take ransom pictures in,” Lynn slurred. “The whole mission goes down this weekend. I heard her say that tomorrow night Edward has to pull all the lawn decorations from storage, so that means the septic tank will be graced with the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I say we go in and take the damn kid after midnight.”
We nodded our heads, caught up in the moment, in the thrill of doing something totally despicable. As if one, we turned and looked at Sherry who danced with Uncle Edward. She glanced our way, little creases of worry crinkling her forehead as we raised our champagne glasses to her.
“To the happy couple,” Lynn called out, a sentiment we graciously echoed.
The next evening found Lynn, Todd, and myself at the septic tank, dressed in military fatigues. Sure enough, Baby Jesus was there, smiling adoringly up at his plastic mother and father. With shaking hands, Todd pulled him free from the manger and hurried through the maze of lawn blow-ups to Lynn’s jeep. Back at my house, we put Jesus in my daughter’s old car seat and photographed him with an old Polaroid camera I had.
The next day the first photo was sent.
Help…was all it said at the bottom of the picture, which showed Baby Jesus with his eyes covered by a blindfold and propped up in the car seat. The second note sent a day later indicated he would lose his plastic baby head if we didn’t receive the ransom listed in a timely fashion. The third letter contained a small piece of one plastic finger just to show our seriousness. It also mentioned that when the ransom was exchanged, Jesus would be returned.
We didn’t believe for one minute Sherry would have our ornaments. How could she? The stores usually ran out by 7:00am the day after Thanksgiving anyway. No. Jesus would find a new life in one of our yards, away from the bright lights of the septic tank.
December twenty-third was our exchange day with the location being at Cluck in the Bucket, the greasiest chicken place in town and totally despised by Sherry. The fourth ransom note had required Sherry to lay all ten ornaments out in the alley behind the restaurant’s dumpster. As the moment of the drop off arrived, I was shocked to see Sherry’s big white Oldsmobile pull into the parking lot and cruise to the alley entrance. Hunkered down in my recently acquired black minivan with Lynn and Todd, the smell of greasy chicken tempting our nervous bellies, we observed Sherry look around cautiously before entering the alley. A few minutes later she emerged grim faced and drove off, tires squealing behind her. Todd got out of the van and headed into the alley.
He jogged back, a funny look on his face. In his hands were the ornaments and something else, which fluttered against his shirt. He flung open the van’s heavy side door, dropped the ornaments on the floor, and said, “Look at this!”
It was a picture of Aunt Sherry. She held all the ornaments in her arms like a glass bouquet but somehow she’d managed to lift the middle fingers of both her hands in the time-honored salute of telling someone to go to Hell. Her tongue stuck out and as Todd turned the photo over, I noticed the writing on the back.
Bring Jesus home, bitches!
We stared in amazement at the little ornaments, wondering how she’d managed to scrounge up ten of them. She must have had to search everywhere, make deals, ask for favors—all for her beloved plastic Jesus. Todd shook his head in disbelief and got in the passenger seat of the van. We prepared to take Jesus back, shocked we’d gotten our ornaments and even starting to feel a little guilty about the kidnapping.
Well, maybe not all of us.
A loud clatter outside the van caused Todd and I to look over at the open side door of the mini van. Baby Jesus lay cracked open on the pavement, his head a mess of weather worn plastic. The vicious, twisted look on Lynn’s face and her right foot still in kicking position, told us what had happened.
“Oops,” she said without a drop of remorse.
“Oh shit,” I groaned. “Get the duct tape.”
“Lots of it,” Todd agreed and got out to root through my toolbox, where among other things, I had gray duct tape. After collecting the arm and leg of Jesus, which had also broken off, I scraped up as much of his head as I could. Under the fluorescent lights of Cluck in a Bucket’s parking lot, Todd performed emergency surgery. The end result was pretty horrific. Unless there was a miracle, Jesus would never light up again.
We drove to Sherry’s house where the three of us begrudgingly put the maimed baby back in the manger and tried to quietly creep away. Lynn made a stealthy exit difficult by giving a parting kick to every lawn ornament in our way. When we got to the van, a photo fluttered at us from under the windshield wiper where it had been tucked. Someone had been waiting for our arrival. It was another picture of Sherry holding the ornaments but in this one she stood next to a worn out salesgirl in front of a small display table marked JCPenny. Propped up on the table was a newspaper dated the day after Thanksgiving. Pure, concentrated evil beamed from Sherry’s smile and we realized she’d outsmarted us. No wonder she had been late to the wedding rehearsal. That bitch had been out shopping. The humiliation, the anger, the defeat—it smothered us as did the knowledge that Sherry was rubbing our noses in it.
Wild, maniacal laughter soared through the air. I turned to see Sherry on the septic tank, silhouetted by the glow coming from Mary and Joseph. She reached down, picked up Jesus, and held him high over her head.
“The wicked will be punished!” Sherry shouted.
A portion of Jesus’ duct taped skull fell off, hitting her right in the head. The arm slipped free from its tape restraint and before we knew it, the whole plastic baby broke apart in her hands, silencing the hellish laughter.
“You bet your ass the wicked will be punished,” Aunt Lynn called. “It’s a friggin’ Christmas miracle!”
The giggle built inside of us, bursting out, tinged with hysteria. Sherry headed towards us and knowing better than to stick around, we scooted into my van. As I pealed away, a loud thump came from the back of the vehicle. Sherry had thrown Jesus at us and his remains bounced off the mini van, leaving a sprinkling of plastic all over the street. We didn’t care. My family was good and right with the world.
I knew Jesus would forgive us.