Elf on the Shelf

December 12, 2014

The Elf on the Shelf is the greatest fraud ever pulled on children

Christmas caters to small children. The endless mythology around Santa and the endless fights over popular toys all revolve around bringing Christmas cheer to another generation of tiny humans who have yet to realize that everything is a lie.

One of the most popular lies to tell your children in recent years has been the myth of the Elf on the Shelf. Here’s everything you need to know:

1) What is the Elf on the Shelf?

It is an elf who lives on your shelf.

OK, it started as a book. The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a children’s book, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. Self-published in 2005, the book tells the story of a group of Santa’s elves who hide out in houses around the country to watch children and decide if they are naughty or nice. Quickly, the Elf became an extension of the Santa Claus Christmas fable. In 2008, it also won the Book of the Year award from Creative Child Awards.

2008 started the rise of the elf. The Elf on the Shelf joined Facebook, and Aebersold and Bell, the authors, went on a book tour. The Elf character picked up enough momentum that year that by 2012, he was a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Last year, The Elf on the Shelf was a bestseller.

The book says that at night, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa on the behavior of children before returning to homes to hide for the day. Thus, the elf is playing a game of hide-and-seek with children, who look for the different spot the tiny being moves to each day.

The book only sets up one rule that children must follow, so that the elf can do its job: “Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.”

After Christmas is over, the elf flies back to the North Pole, presumably to spend time with Santa, until Thanksgiving the next year. Nobody ever asks why the most efficient delivery system for this Santa surveillance racket is in major department stores, or why the elves just started showing up in 2005, but there you go.

The elf in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Brad Barket/Getty)

2) Wait. I thought this was a toy?

It is kind of! When parents purchase the book for their children, it comes with a small plush elf that they are invited to use to reenact the book. It’s an opportunity for parents to put their lying skills to the test, to see if they can convince their kids this elf is real, communicates with Santa, and lives in their home.The toy became incredibly popular after it was picked as the Best Toy of the Year by an educational toy store calledLearning Express.

You can buy the elf with two different skin tones, and as a boy or girl. Those are the only variations of elf available at this time.

3) What is the Elf’s name?

You can name your elf whatever you want. As the book explains, being named is what allows elves to become powered by Christmas magic and fly back and forth to the North Pole. The book encourages families to create a tiny birth certificate for the elf with its name and the date of its adoption.

Having trouble thinking of a name? Want to teach your children about peer pressure, social media, and conformity? These are some popular names for girl elves, according to Pinterest:

A list of girl elf names (Pinterest)

4) So this whole craze is just about a fun myth?

No not really. The Elf on the Shelf is also about parents who have ruined something innocuous by taking it to a totally unnecessary (albeit fun!) level.

5) Can I see some examples?

Sure. There are whole Pinterest boards of ideas for how to strategically place your elf in your house and make your children the coolest kids in school (or at least on Instagram). Here are a few elf ideas:

.elf in silverware drawer
The Elf in the Silverware Drawer (Pinterest)

.elf grocery list
The Elf makes a grocery list

6) Is it controversial?

Of course it is. It involves parenting.

There are two main controversies around the elf:

The story basically requires that parents move the elf into a new position every day. This can be an added holiday stress on a parent with young children, who is already trying to juggle too many balls at once. On top of the actual work, there can be pressure in certain social circles to make your elf do the most interesting, creative, and performative things, so that you can shame and humiliate the elves of your children’s friends. “Is it any wonder that this kind of holiday madness, which dovetails with every strain of guilt mothers feel over their domestic imperfections, coupled with the catch-22 that if you do your job right, your children will never thank you for it (because all these goodies come from the Elf!), sometimes leads to a backlash?,” Kate Tuttle wrote for The Atlantic in 2012.
The second controversy revolves around how parents choose to discipline their children. The story makes clear that Santa is busy at the North Pole and unable to watch every child in the whole world, so the elf has been sent to do his dirty work for him. The elf serves as a tangible reminder that children are supposed to be “nice,” not “naughty.” Some parents, obviously, use the elf as a way to discipline their children by reminding them that the “elf is always watching.” Needless to say, other parents aren’t keen on that, because it makes it more difficult to discipline your children (presumably) in January when the elf isn’t there to watch them. Theoretically, this might not teach your child right from wrong, instead teaching them to perform based on the promise of rewards. (One supposes parents could just keep the elf game going year-round, but that a.) sounds exhausting and b.) seems like it has the potential to backfire once your children realize their moral center was founded upon a toy.)
7) What can the elf teach us about surveillance culture?

“I watch and report on all that you do!” the elf warns in the book, adding that “the word will get out if you broke a rule.” This sounds pretty familiar!

“Having been molded by this age of NSA overreach, Snowden, Wikileaks and Anonymous, what bothers me most is that inviting Elf on the Shelf into the home unnecessarily extends surveillance culture into a place that should be free of it,” Alex Steed wrote in a column for the Bangor Daily News. “Santa Claus is a myth that at best represents generosity at its finest. But with the elf, we choose to emphasize his surveillance. That is really weird.”

Remember the NSA? Remember Edward Snowden? Remember @InfoSecTaylorSwift?

If you’ve been waiting for just the right moment to tell your kids about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, the elf might just do the trick.

Though this critique of the elf is, on its face, a little strange — Santa has been spying on children since his invention — it does make an interesting point: what does it teach children when you allow them to believe that they are being watched at all times and that this ultimately is for their benefit? That’s a question many adults wrestle with as well — though our concerns usually don’t involve elves.

But if you’ve been waiting for just the right moment to tell your kids about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, the elf could actually help you teach your children about privacy. Then again, the elf also brings questions about security within private homesthat can even scare some children. “Why inject a note of fear and suspicion into a season and a holiday that are meant to be about love, togetherness, and forgiveness?” Tuttle wrote.

8) Fine. What if I still want to play this game, but don’t celebrate Christmas?

As always, he marketing geniuses of the world are way, way ahead of you. There are two different Jewish alternatives to the Elf on the Shelf, if your family celebrates Hanukkah instead. The Mensch on the Bench and the Maccabee on the Mantel both come with a book that tells the story of Hanukkah and the miraculous oil that kept the lamp lit for eight days.

There is not, to our knowledge, a Kwanzaa version of the story at this time.

9) Where can I buy an Elf for the lights of my life?

Almost anywhere. If you must have one, Amazon has every variation of the elves.

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