For many decades until 1990, a life-size 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 manager scene, and every December, when they set it up, it was a signal to the community that the holiday season has begun.

While many locals and visitors would stroll through the Plaza to view it, there were numerous occasions when they would notice that one or more of the pieces were missing. Often, it was the baby Jesus, but the Wise Men also went missing occasionally.

I was the Sonoma Index-Tribune’s 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 the 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 Steiners, the Swiss Hotel or some other drinking establishment.

Most Sonomans, myself included, assumed that the culprits were bored teenagers who had nothing better to amuse themselves on late winter nights in this very quiet little town.

For reasons unrelated to its frequently missing pieces, 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 of the officers to be on duty in town after midnight. Most of the time it was dead quiet. Not a creature was stirring. Nothing was going on.

To amuse themselves, the officers would take baby Jesus or one of the Wise Men and hide them somewhere as a challenge to their colleagues on the day shift 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.

While there were some local residents who wanted the crèche removed, there were many who also wanted it to stay. It was a divisive issue in our little town.

Though no legal ruling regarding the Sonoma crèche was ever finalized, the city in 1990 proposed a ban on religious displays of all types on the Plaza. But the ministerial association had already decided that symbol of love and hope should not be a source of community acrimony and voluntarily moved it out of the Plaza and in front of the Congregational Church on Spain Street before the county approved the proposal.

This passage is excerpted from Bill Lynch’s new book, “My Sonoma: Valley of the Moon,” which is available for sale at Readers’ Book, Fat Pilgrim, Chateau Sonoma and on Amazon.