It's a scene right out of a Christmas standard: Thieves and vandals slip into yards and try to steal Christmas, one string of lights at a time.
Howard County police say that in each incident this year, holiday "Grinches" -- most of them believed to be juveniles -- have destroyed decorations outside area homes or stolen them for their own use.
The victims say they will let no one steal their Christmas joy.
"It's not going to ruin my Christmas," said Rita Wyble of Ellicott City.
Last week, Ms. Wyble found a set of decorative lights in the street in front of her home, picked them up and put them in her garage. Later that night, when she went to turn on her own light display, she realized that the battered lights she had found earlier were her own.
"They cut them with wire cutters," Ms. Wyble said of the electric lights she had spent several hours weaving through bushes and trees in front of her home.
"I was upset," she said. "But I have a new granddaughter, and nothing's going to ruin that."
Police said Ellicott City ranks high for destruction of property this season because many communities in the long-established town decorate their homes.
"It's a senseless crime," said Sgt. Steve Keller, a police spokesman. "It done quickly -- in and out -- and there's no economic gain for anyone," even thieves who try to sell the worn perennial displays.
Most of the vandals vanish into the night without being caught.
Perhaps that's why Walter Mady wishes he had returned early from a Christmas party last Saturday and been able to stop the vandals who "sliced his lights."
He had to pay the price of restructuring his display but said the vandalism made him more determined to celebrate the holiday. The next day, he bought new lights to replace the old ones.
After arranging his new lights, Mr. Mady played detective and asked questions around the neighborhood. He called police after being told that two boys, both about 11 years old, had cut his lights.
Mr. Mady said he didn't insist that the boys face charges but did demand and receive an apology.
"They probably weren't real Grinches," he said. "They probably thought it was funny. But they didn't when the police were involved."
Marsha Shepherd of Ellicott City also thinks youths targeted her home.
Ms. Shepherd was angered last Friday when she found that someone had stolen her large blue Santa Claus flag and its 5-foot pole. The culprits -- she thinks they were teen-agers -- uprooted one of two 3-foot wooden soldiers near the driveway. "It's not the end of the world, but it ruined the whole day for me," she said. Joe Liberto, who had an award-winning display at his Mount Hebron home, said he won't give in to those who strip holiday cheer from front lawns.
Late Dec. 11, Gizmo, Mr. Liberto's cat, jumped after being startled by a ruckus in the front yard. members of Mr. Liberto's family scrambled to the window and saw "a whole bunch of lights and everything started flying," he said.
Vandals had torn down, kicked and driven over several decorations along a 52-foot stretch outside his home. Biblical statues, a manger, neon reindeer and Christmas lights were damaged. The display had won first place in an area contest this year, he said.