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I learned about the recent “elf on a shelf” trend on the day after Thanksgiving, when the plane I was boarding was preparing to take off. The cabin door had just been closed, and a flight attendant got on the overhead to make one final announcement, at the end of which she displayed the pint-size elf and delivered it to the child in 15B, whose parents must have cleverly arranged this surprise.
Over six million of these Elf on a Shelf figurines and accompanying books have been sold in the past eight years since they went on the market; the founders are bent on cultivating a new family tradition. For thirty bucks you can get your book and your elf; then, you and your children are supposed to name the elf, register it on the website, and obtain the adoption certificate. From Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, the elf moves about the house (parents constantly under pressure to think of creative perches for the elves) and watches over the children. The elf is a tangible extension of Santa—the narrative that comes with the elves says that they fly back to the North Pole every night to give Santa a report on the child’s behavior that day. Children are encouraged to whisper secrets to their elves, or make additions to their Christmas wish lists, but they are forbidden to touch the elves. Touching an elf destroys the fragile magic of Christmas, according to the website. Apparently kids delight in the daily discovery of their elf’s placement around the house, and apparently the physical presence of Santa’s naughty-or-nice scorekeeper is a handy disciplinary tool for parents who buy in.
On Christmas Eve, the elf gets a ride back to the North Pole on Santa’s sleigh. Kids have to say goodbye to their elf until the next Thanksgiving. Judging from the comments on the Elf on a Shelf’s Facebook page, and from one father’s story of how the elf’s departure caused Christmas-ruining levels of sadness for his six year old daughter, saying goodbye to one’s elf on Christmas Eve is quite a heartbreaking experience for young children who have grown attached.
Brilliant marketing, actually. No wonder the elf on a shelf enterprise is growing—it plays on some pretty deep human stuff, and gets kids to keep coming back for more. Now there are year-round ways to honor and your elf at every year-round holiday until he or she returns for the next Christmas season. And the founders are really pushing the idea of having one’s elf come back for the child’s birthday. The whole thing is touted as a way to foster a new family tradition at Christmas, and of course it fits nicely into such bigger aims as enforcing good behavior in children, and perpetuating the Santa myth, and reinforcing the (very American-friendly) message that material goods are the motivation, and the reward, for being “nice.”
Ugh. While I really don’t want to bah-humbug anyone’s good clean fun, I really find the whole thing problematic. It bothers me on two levels. I am annoyed that yet another commercial endeavor is worming its way into the heart of how families celebrate Christmas. One more thing that needs to be bought in order to construct magical and memorable moments for children. Another easy purchase feeding nostalgic parents’ fervent hopes that their children will look back on childhood Christmases as fondly as they themselves do.
And I am annoyed at the way the elf on the shelf craze warps the deeper messages of the Christian Christmas story that no doubt many families are hoping to uphold right alongside their narrative of elf shenanigans. How do you nurture a child’s sense of wonder and mystery over the birth of Jesus, who comes to us not as a reward for good behavior but as sheer gift? How do you put stock in Santa, who keeps permanent records of rights and wrongs and only sends his messengers in order to keep close surveillance, and also simultaneously introduce Jesus, who comes for the naughty and the nice alike, and whose presence is less about espionage and more about simply joining us in love and presence? The elves are not to be touched—that’s a kind of superstitious magic. Jesus is the fullness of a God who says, “touch, and taste, and see.” The Christmas message of how our salvation comes to us in the material reality of a human…. well, that message is constantly pitted against the cultural versions that tell us our salvation will come through the material acquisitions we earn for ourselves. But the enduring good news of Christmas is that the long-awaited Christ-child does arrive, and he stays. Christmas Eve is a welcoming party, not a goodbye party. The messenger stays, because he is the gift. I just hope that preschoolers who are distraught over their elf’s departure will somehow also learn to find delight in the One who arrives.