For many decades, up until 1990, a life-sized crèche was a prominent feature of Sonoma’s Christmas decorations. It was placed in front of City Hall at the front-most part of the Plaza horseshoe facing the intersection of Broadway and Napa Street.
The Sonoma Valley Ministerial Association was responsible for the Christmas manger scene, and every December, when they set it up, it was also a signal to the community that the holiday season had begun.
While many locals and visitors would stroll through the Plaza to view it, there were numerous occasions when they would notice one or more of the pieces missing. Often it was the baby Jesus, but the wise men also went missing occasionally.
I was the police beat reporter in those years, and often ran reports of the missing characters along with a city plea for the return of the baby and/or wise men.
Inevitably, a few days later, the baby Jesus would miraculously reappear in the manger. The missing wise men were usually found on a bench in front of Steiner’s Bar, at The Swiss Hotel or some other drinking establishment on the Plaza.
Most Sonomans, myself included, assumed that the culprits were bored teenagers who had nothing better to amuse themselves on late nights in this very quiet little town.
The crèche was moved off the Plaza in 1990. A few years later, one of the Sonoma policemen who worked during the crèche era told me the real story.
In those days, it was normal for only one or two officers to be on duty in town after midnight. Most of the time, the town was dead. Not a soul was stirring and nothing was going on.
To amuse themselves, the on-duty officers would take the baby Jesus or the wise men and hide them somewhere as a challenge to their colleagues on the day watch to find them.
Even though I spent a lot of time every week at the police station going over the crime reports with those guys, they never let on that it was they who were responsible for the missing and miraculously-reappearing figures.
One more crèche story is worth mentioning.
In 1989, a protestor named James Byrd decided that the crèche made a perfect backdrop for him to demonstrate his unhappiness with the U.S. conduct for the past 200 years.
He alerted a lot of folks, including the press, as to his intentions. And on a sunny afternoon, he kneeled down in front of the crèche, took out a small American Flag, laid it on the lawn, poured lighter fluid on it and lit a match to it.
He was not arrested, but was later cited later for starting an open fire in the Plaza.
Eventually, court cases in other parts of the country led to decisions regarding religious displays on public land that would come to be a local issue as well. While there were some local residents who wanted the crèche removed, there were many who wanted it to stay. It became a divisive issue in our little town.
While no legal ruling regarding the Sonoma crèche was ever finalized, in 1990 the city decided to ban religious displays of all types in the Plaza. But the ministerial association had already decided that a symbol of love and hope should not be a source of community acrimony and voluntarily moved it out of the Plaza to the front of the Congregational Church on Spain Street.