David Gibson woke up to a strange, sad surprise outside the bed-and-breakfast he runs in Alexandria, Minn., earlier this month: The baby Jesus figurine from his oversized, lit-up Nativity set was missing.

“I came out that morning and the [extension] cords were pulled out of the manger,” said Gibson, owner of the Cedar Rose Inn. “Jesus was gone.”

Gibson said Monday that he combed the area looking for the 10-inch infant, but he hasn’t found Jesus yet.

It’s become a trend across the state and the U.S. baby Jesus figures have gone missing in cities from Chisholm to St. Cloud this year, upsetting Christians and demonstrating what some call a depressing sign of the times.

“We’ve kind of heard through the grapevine that it’s a tradition for college kids” to steal statues of the newborn Christ, Gibson said. “My wife figured that if they never give it back, that maybe they need Jesus in their life.”

Sometimes, the babies are recovered later in the season, as one was in West Bend, Wis., last year.

But owners of the crèche sets are increasingly turning to cameras, ropes and even GPS devices to secure their centerpieces, according to the New York Times.

Next year, Gibson told the Star Tribune, a new baby will be back in the manger — with a motion sensor camera watching his every move.

Gibson, who made the Nativity set’s manger himself and even added cedar boughs to the stable’s roof, said he looked into getting a new Jesus this year but found that the infants are typically sold as part of a set.

Community members have expressed sadness at the baby’s absence and said they never imagined this could happen in Alexandria. Gibson said the incident has also inspired some head-scratching on his part.

“It just seems kind of weird,” he said. “I never thought about someone stealing something like that.”

A rash of baby Jesus thefts has plagued Minnesota recently, the New York Times reported, raising both alarm and speculation about the thieves’ motives. In St. Cloud, a Jesus statue was stolen from a historic set purchased by schoolchildren in the 1940s, even though the Nativity set is close to the police and fire stations.

When the St. Cloud Times posted its own article about Jesus’ disappearance on Facebook, some commenters said they weren’t surprised.

“This happens every year,” said Sue Bauer.

More than one person said the pilfering should qualify as a hate crime. Others tried to incorporate the theft into the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth.

“Of course the bed is empty, He hasn’t been born yet!” Sarah Hopfner said in a post.

Vicky Larson posted, “Aren’t we always praying for his return anyway?”

Theories about why baby Jesus figurines have become targets are as abundant as the array of security measures dreamed up to protect them, the New York Times reported. Some owners of Nativity scenes, long a centerpiece of Christmas celebrations, suggest an erosion of faith may be at the root.

Others, though, say these are merely thoughtless teenage pranks.

Whatever the motive, stealing baby Jesus statues has joined a list of illicit holiday traditions, along with Christmas tree theft and porch pirating, the newspaper said.

In Chisholm, a Jesus figure on display at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church disappeared last January. It was never found, said Kevin Scaia, Chisholm City Council member who belongs to the parish.

Church leaders bought a new Nativity set and placed it outside this month on a snowmobile trailer. Only hours after the Rev. Anthony Craig hosted a blessing ceremony for the new display, the Virgin Mary statue went missing. With no leads, a replacement Mary was added Wednesday morning, the New York Times reported.

This time, the church pointed a security camera at the holy scene and locked the trailer — in case someone schemed to drive the whole thing away, the newspaper reported. The crimes, Craig said, were a sign “that people aren’t living the gospel.”

Scaia, also a member of the local Knights of Columbus chapter, said stealing the statues doesn’t make sense.

“I was disturbed by it because now this is the second time,” Scaia told the Star Tribune on Monday. “It just doesn’t look good for our community.”

Scaia said he’d personally offer a reward for the return of Mary and the baby Jesus and hoped their kidnapper would be caught.

The thefts demonstrate a larger problem in society, he said.

“Leave the church alone,” Scaia added. “It’s just so wrong.”