Holiday cheer comes mysteriously late at night on the quiet streets of downtown Excelsior, when anonymous donors top Christmas trees with bright stars or leave mittens for local families in need.

But recently some thieves also have struck overnight, stealing four decorated trees designated for families who can’t afford one and leaving behind a trail of broken ornaments.

“It’s just crushing to the people involved,” said Kellie Murphy-Ringate, who heads up the project and had one of the trees stolen outside the auto shop that she and her husband own. “There’s all these great people who are doing these great things in the dark of the night. But then there’s other people doing this in the dark of the night.”

The trees are part of the Lake Minnetonka community’s longtime Giving Tree project, organized by the Excelsior Fire District and local businesses. Trees are placed outside shops so residents can at any time drop off donated ornaments, homemade wooden stars, candy canes and other items. Girl Scout troops, youth hockey teams and other groups come together to trim the trees. Big green notes on the 20 trees make it clear they’re part of the special project.

Then, before Christmas, they’re delivered to families through Hopkins-based nonprofit Resource West, which serves low-income families in the Minnetonka and Hopkins school districts.

“It can be a highlight of the holidays,” said Tarrah Palm of ResourceWest. Christmas trees, she said, aren’t a basic need, but “this is an extra that, if you have the money, you can get.”

But this year, for the first time in the project’s 19 years, it’s clear that thieves are trying to tear down the tradition.

At the end of November, two trees were taken overnight. Another two fully decorated trees were snatched earlier this week. The South Lake Minnetonka Police Department is investigating the thefts.

Murphy-Ringate, Excelsior’s fire inspector, has already replaced the stolen trees and said the community will make sure all families get a tree on Dec. 19.

What’s really disturbing, she said, is the stealing of cheer in a season of giving.

“We’re just hoping it will stop,” she said. “You’re not just taking a tree from a storefront, you’re taking it from a family looking forward to it.”