But thanks to some high-tech help, dozens of churches and residents are finding they can quickly recover cherished items that were purloined by thieves or holiday pranksters.
They're using global positioning systems and related devices that are hidden inside the figurines. The devices use satellite signals to pinpoint their location anywhere in the world, and are often no larger than a domino.
If an item goes missing, the owners can use cell phones or computer browsers to track not only its current location, but where it has been since it was taken.
One area firm, New York-based BrickHouse Security, provides a GPS device at no cost to nonprofit and religious institutions as part of its "GPS Jesus" program. The company got the idea for the program in 2005, after a few churches asked about one-month rentals instead of its usual longer contracts.
Todd Morris, BrickHouse's chief executive officer, said the program was born in part because the thefts struck a personal nerve in him.
"I couldn't help but feel like these types of pranks were cruel and costly, especially at that time of year" Morris said Friday. "Not only do they damage the spirit of the holiday, but they also leave communities feeling vulnerable and mistrustful, right when we're in the midst of a season that's all about spreading goodwill."
When the program began, Morris said GPS devices were much bulkier and very complicated to use. They also were much more costly than they are today, and the firm mostly worked with police and other law enforcement agencies.
But as the devices were refined and simplified, the program became more popular - mostly through word of mouth by church officials. The GPS trackers were made available to more than 30 communities across North America last year and will be expanded further this year.
The devices have gotten rave reviews from church officials, who say they are a great tool for recovering stolen items. They also help prevent thefts when the community is made aware that the nativity scenes and holiday displays are protected by the devices.
"There's been no attempt of theft since we announced that we're tracking our Jesus," said Alan Czyewski of St. Ambrose Church in Old Bridge, which gained unwanted recognition when its displays were repeatedly victimized by vandals.
"We love this. People are now well aware of our GPS Jesus, so they leave it alone," Czyewski said.
Morris said comments like that make the program worthwhile.
"We want to help protect as many people as we can and help them protect themselves and their possessions, and this helps us reach that goal," he said.