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WHO STOLE baby Jesus?

Well, it certainly wasn't me, although I was one of the last to see him there, lying in the straw - real straw, nothing but the best for our village, you understand - surrounded by Mary and Joseph, oxen, asses, sheep a

WHO STOLE baby Jesus?

Well, it certainly wasn't me, although I was one of the last to see him there, lying in the straw - real straw, nothing but the best for our village, you understand - surrounded by Mary and Joseph, oxen, asses, sheep and all the other personages you might expect. It was the village Christmas crib again, the one they trot out year after year and build in a stone-flagged courtyard at the foot of the Escalier de la Commanderie, the splendid name they give to the 6-flight, metre-wide vaulted stairway that leads up from the rue Neuve to the church, one of the village's principal thoroughfares.

Honorary Crib-builders are Pascal, who's a village councillor, and William. We'll meet Pascal in another guise later on, that of Honorary Council Jester, but wearing his crib-builder's helmet he and William had, as usual, constructed a life-size crib with cut-out figures in plasterboard backed with insulation-thick expanded polystyrene. It had taken them several December days to assemble it all, but by the evening of le marché de Noël, the annual Christmas fair, all was ready for its inauguration with carols and Christmas songs sung by the small choir I conduct. Pascal, who was due to leave for the north the next day, and William asked us to sing actually in the crib, as though we were latter-day shepherds or wise men, so we interspersed ourselves judiciously between the cut-outs, the infant Jesus lying between the Josephine and Barbara (altos) and myself and André the village cobbler (tenors). The infant Jesus was certainly there when we left, hoarse but comfortably warm after a goodly dose of vin chaud (hot spiced red wine) which the ever-resourceful William had brewed in a kind of shebeen he'd set up in a nearby vaulted cellar.

But next morning . . . first to report the missing infant Jesus was Mme Lézard, a dame as sharp of eye as of tongue. Now all that follows is hearsay, because she never actually got on to me personally about it, but you can imagine what went round the village, rumours, innuendos and accusations hotter and spicier than William's vin chaud. As the occasion coincided with the centenary of the separation in France of church and state in 1905, much featured in the media, there were easy hooks for village opinion to latch on to. The Lézardite litany condemned the village youth. It was obvious, it must have been them that stole it, they spent all their time hanging about the Escalier de la Commanderie, drinking and smoking and worse. Downright scandalous. Why, in their day there was respect and reverence, you wouldn't have dared lay a finger . . .  village bobby . . . clip round the ear . . . no discipline nowadays . . . and you can fill in the rest yourself.

The state faction saw things differently. What was a crib doing in a public place, anyway? The church was the place for it, not the street. Whoever stole it had his heart in the right place . . . secular country . . . no right to impose . . . primitive mummeries . . . daft old bats . . . 21st century . . . (continue as appropriate).

Most of the village, I suspect, belonged to the je m'en foutistes, the can't-really-get-very- worked-up-about-it party, and derived much innocent merriment from watching people lathering themselves into a frenzy over what was nothing more than a square of plywood with a painting of a chubby blonde lad who looked about three lying on his back, grinning and waving his arms and legs in the air. Anyway, the municipal council was made aware of this heinous larceny and started arguing. The president of the village amenities committee was informed, but preserved a diplomatic inaction. The police were told, and only the fortuitous absence of the maire in Paris prevented him walking the uncomfortable tight-rope between church and state; after all, they've all got votes, believers, non-believers and je m'en foutistes.

Then on Christmas morning was the cry A Miracle! A Holy Miracle! heard? I don't know, I wish I could tell you. All I know is that the infant Jesus was restored to his straw at midnight on Christmas Eve. Pascal was away, of course, and the Lézardites hadn't bothered to ask William. He could have told them that in the interests of realism he'd spirited the infant Jesus away into his shebeen for safe keeping after the marché de Noël, and had kept him there until the midnight hour struck. Do you know, I think the Lézardites were a bit disappointed. They would rather he'd been stolen.

*

GIANT PAELLA after a concert of carols and readings in a neighbouring church. Josephine was taking part, so I went along to lend moral support, especially as she was reading the famous account, translated into French, of the Cratchit Christmas dinner from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Towards the end of the meal, when people were beginning to think of getting up and going home, Pascal suddenly stood up and started telling Belgian jokes.

Now Belgian jokes are very popular in France, at least as popular as Irish jokes used at any rate to be in England, even if political correctness has severely pruned them since, and Pascal is a pastmaster at telling them.

Free sample: Arsène and Bobus, two likely Belgian lads, start a window-cleaning business. They work hard and it does so well that they have to buy a stepladder. Business increases, they're contracted to clean the windows on a block of flats, far higher than the reach of someone on a stepladder. Problem. How to reach the upper windows? They solve the problem of access by Bobus clutching the sponge between his feet while Arsène suspends him out of a top floor window by his braces and jiggles him up and down. Bobus comes up to wring out his sponge and says to Arsène 'I've been thinking: do you realise that if you accidentally let go my braces they could easily snap back and hit me in the eye?'

You see the kind of thing? Pascal had the bit between his teeth and kept them coming. At one stage I leant across to William (the same people do everything in this village) and said Is he always like this? He certainly is, he replied. Give him half a chance and he'll keep going all night. You should hear him at municipal council meetings. He has them in stitches.

So that's what goes on. I'm all for it, myself. Peace on earth and Belgian jokes. Saves a lot of bickering. Happy New Year.