John and Joan Leising were quite upset last year when somebody stole the plastic infant Jesus statue from the lighted manger set outside their North Buffalo home.
This year, they have the Jesus statue back -- and a pretty weird story to tell at Christmas parties.
"When we tell people about it, they just look at us and say, 'Wow, that really happened?' " Joan Leising said. "Then, we show them the photo album."
The Leisings, residents of Depew Avenue, take pride in their annual Christmas decorations. They have displayed a brightly lighted outdoor manger set -- with statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men and other biblical figures -- for the past five years. They were hurt Dec. 23, 2005, when they looked outside and realized the baby Jesus statue, a relatively inexpensive plastic model about 18 inches tall, was missing from the manger.
In the statue's place, someone had left a note, saying they needed the statue for something and would return it in three days. The incident was disturbing to the Leisings and their daughter, Julia, 10, who are proud of their Catholic faith and thought the theft might be some kind of angry show of protest.
"It kind of shook my faith in our neighborhood. How could somebody do something like that to us?" said John Leising, a veteran Buffalo firefighter. "But because of the note, I thought there was a chance we might get it back in a few days."
Joan Leising, a hospital nurse, felt the same way.
But weeks passed, and then months, and the statue was not returned. Joan Leising started wondering if she might be able to find another similar baby Jesus statue at a garage sale.
Then, one morning in late August, John Leising opened his door and found the statue lying on his doorstep. With it were another note and a photo album.
"Please read this letter in its entirety before passing judgment on the actions and events that have taken place," the letter began. "We are simply a group of young adults who wished to show the baby Jesus a better life than he would have seen cooped up in an attic crawl space. He has traveled over counties and states, met people and animals alike. We have done our best to show the baby Jesus the many glorious aspects of our world."
The photo album was full of snapshots taken of their Jesus statue at various locations all over New York State. Someone had posed the statue in front of Thruway signs in Binghamton, Rochester, Albany and Poughkeepsie. The statue was photographed at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge south of Albany and at a psychiatric center in Rochester.
The Leisings' statue was posed on a bicycle, on a horse and in a car, wearing a seat belt. It was photographed in a chair next to a campfire somewhere, with a can of beer in a cup holder attached to the chair. It was photographed in someone's kitchen, next to all the makings for chocolate brownies. There was the Jesus statue again -- on the campuses of Rochester Institute of Technology and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
"We have done the best possible job we could to keep the baby Jesus safe and in loving arms," the note continued. "During the course of the last eight months, the baby Jesus has become more to us than simply a plastic religious figurine. He has come with us to parties, on camping trips, on college visits and on multiple summer adventures . . . Having to say goodbye made today a sad day for all of us.
"The baby Jesus has made us happy at numerous times in the past eight months, so we hope the chronicles of his life with us can pass some of that happiness on to you."
The note added that the prank was never meant to be "blasphemous or disrespectful." It was signed "Creators of the baby Jesus chronicles."
The Leisings are still puzzled over why the chroniclers indicated the statue would be returned in three days but kept it for eight months.
"I just wish that, at some point during those eight months, they had sent us a note saying, 'We still have your statue. It's OK. We're still going to return it before Christmas,' " Joan Leising said.
"The real Jesus Christ would have forgiven them for that," John Leising said. "And we do, too."