DURHAM, England (AP) _ A lifetime petty thief, who once locked himself into a house he was trying to rob, was released from prison weeks early on Wednesday so he could celebrate Christmas at home for the first time in 44 years.

A dozen Durham Prison officers, well-acquainted with 69-year-old Albert Laidler, gave him a cheery send-off, the British Press Association said.

Laidler was sentenced 64 times and has spent every Christmas since 1942 behind bars. He also passed time in institutions as a youth.

''I am really looking forward to my first proper Christmas,'' he said.

He is also due to go to a wedding Saturday for the first time in his life.

Laidler said he would use his prison discharge money to buy a new shirt for the ceremony and a present for the couple, his landlady, Anne Gordon, and her fiancee.

Laidler has never stolen anything worth more than 100 pounds (now $143).

He also hasn't been particularly adept. The time he locked himself in the house he was trying to rob, he waited for someone to return.

His latest court appearance was at Gateshead on Dec. 12, when he admitted a series of thefts and burglaries and was sentenced to two months in Durham Prison.

But Laidler had already spent a month in prison awaiting the outcome of the case. After hearing his story, the magistrates ruled he could be let go in time for the holiday.

His lawyer, Nigel Swinburne, pleaded for Laidler's Christmas freedom.

A colleague of Swinburne, Ian Cosgrove, picked up Laidler from prison and took him to Mrs. Gordon's home, into which Laidler had moved last January.

Mrs. Gordon had a special breakfast waiting.

''We are having a very traditional Christmas and Albert will be like just one of the family,'' she said.

''He doesn't have any family of his own that we know of but he knows he is always welcome to come back here any time.''

Laidler also said he never had a girlfriend.

Cosgrove said Laidler's thieving ways were like an illness.

''He has the same chronic symptoms as an alcoholic and has found it hard over the years to resist temptations in the form of an open door or purse,'' Cosgrove said.

''He's a sneak thief rather than a burglar who breaks in and ransacks homes. Apart from his offending, he is a charming and intelligent old man.''

Laidler has served time in most of Britain's jails.

''My best Christmas was in Liverpool Prison when I received some sweets (candy) and a bottle of orange juice as a present,'' Laidler said.