Of all the holidays my family celebrates, Christmas is my favorite, with Thanksgiving and Free Slurpee Day at 7-Eleven not far behind. My childhood Decembers were pine-scented, gingerbread- filled weeks of build-up to Christmas Day, orchestrated by my mother whose love for the holiday’s traditions, both secular and sacred, knew few bounds. From making homemade Advent wreathes to hanging our stockings on our bedroom doorknobs—my father’s genius innovation to get some sleep on Christmas morning while my brother, sister and I happily played in our bedrooms with gifts Santa left in the stockings—if it came in a manger or hailed from anywhere near the North Pole, we embraced it with (jingle) bells on.
When my first child was born 19 years ago, I maintained the family traditions. We sang carols in the car, made ornaments and sprinkled reindeer food (birdseed) outside on Christmas Eve. Ten years later, when my second child was born, I got to push the holiday re-set button, this time with an apprentice. My oldest may have stopped believing, but he had drunk the red-and-green Kool-Aid and was happy to play along for the sake of his little brother.
It was all fun and reindeer games until three years ago, when the Elf on the Shelf ingratiated himself into our holiday proceedings. While shopping, my older son saw the book/doll combo “The Elf on the Shelf” by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. We both thought it would be light-hearted, wacky fun. The scary “Psycho” shower-scene music now accompanies the memory of tossing the package in the cart.
For those unfamiliar with this seemingly whimsical tradition, “Elf on the Shelf” spins the yarn of an elf who flies from the North Pole on Thanksgiving night and perches himself on a shelf in a family’s house to silently watch the goings-on. The premise is simple: Each night, the elf flies back to the Big Man and reports on whether the children in the house have been naughty or nice.
The book encourages families to name the elf doll, but there are rules: Children are never to touch or move the elf, lest the magic wear off. Since the elf gets around—parents are supposed to move it each night—children need to be well behaved no matter where they are because the elf is always watching. On Christmas Eve, the elf returns to the North Pole without a word about whether or not the boy or girl has passed muster. All that’s left to do is wait until morning for Santa’s verdict to be handed down. Silent Night, indeed.
At first, having the elf around was great—a behavioral management tool and holiday decoration rolled into one. All I had to do when I sensed some sass or whining was invoke the elf. No parenting skills involved, just point to the bookcase! Yes, the elf is slightly creepy, with doe eyes that follow you. My consciously “elf-free” co-worker says it reminds her of Chucky, the knife-wielding doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer in the “Child’s Play” horror flicks. She knows children who ended up in their mother’s bed crying after just a few days with the elf.
My youngest son, aged 6 when he first started living under a Christmas-themed police state, doesn’t seem to have issues with constant surveillance. Perhaps I should be worried about that, but it’s not what is destroying my favorite holiday. I blame the “Shelfers.”
No longer is it enough to move the elf every night—Elf on the Shelf has become an industry and a Web-fueled competition. “Shelfers” have flooded Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest with photos of cutesy, daily elf shenanigans. Elves playing cards with stuffed animals. Joy-riding with Barbie in her convertible. Taking selfies by the Christmas tree. Making snow angels in flour. And on and on. One mother froze her elf (true) in an empty cardboard milk carton, peeled off the cardboard and fashioned a tableau with Elsa from the movie “Frozen” “freezing” the elf with her spell. (Of course, the Web put a naughty, R-rated spin on elf antics with “Bad Elf on the Shelf” pics and posts. Think the elf, Barbie, a wooden-spoon stripper-pole and Monopoly money. )
Last year, on the day before Thanksgiving, instead of preparing for the 15 guests due at my house in less than 24 hours, I was out shopping for an ugly Christmas sweater for our elf’s Thanksgiving Night arrival. My older son and I had forgotten what we named our elf, so our plan was to put the elf in a sweater with a note that said his new nickname was “Fuzzy,” so deemed by his fellow elves for his sartorial style. Thanks to Etsy.com, if so inclined, I could kit out Fuzzy with handmade Minecraft T-shirts, fishing gear, a pilgrim hat, chaps and a mermaid tail. And that’s the non-licensed stuff. Since hitting the market in 2005, the book/doll and subsequent elf-licensed and elf-sized line of sweaters, skating and cooking ensembles, furniture and stuffed reindeer have racked up $10 million plus annually.
There’s even equal-opportunity holiday desecration with a Jewish version of Elf on the Shelf: Mensch on a Bench. The stuffed Moshe the Mensch comes with a book, appropriate attire, menorah, a back story—he was in the temple with the Maccabees when they triumphed over the Greeks— plus rules and suggestions: “Moshe loves to have his picture taken” and encourages selflessness (“One night of Hanukkah, don’t open presents yourself; instead, buy them for people in need”), but he, too, is not above withholding gifts if he doesn’t like what he sees. Another “Rat on the Mat,” just like his Christian counterpart.
My youngest comes home from school during December with tales of what other kids’ elves do and how much fun it would be if Fuzzy played checkers with marshmallows or gift-wrapped the toilet. While there is no way I am going to devote my holiday season posing a doll each night in elaborate scenarios, I do try to do more than just move him from perch to perch. My attempts at elf cuteness, however, typically backfire. One morning, my son “caught” Fuzzy watching The Weather Channel. Snow was forecast, and I thought it would be funny to have Fuzzy concerned about making the nightly trip to the Pole. Upon seeing the elf on the couch, my son froze in horror and then screamed. He wouldn’t stop until I moved Fuzzy and covered the couch with a blanket. My son was convinced the “no touching” rule meant he couldn’t sit on the same piece of furniture as Fuzzy.
Once, I thought it would be fun to have Fuzzy build a LEGO Christmas tree. Not so much fun at 11:30 p.m., though, as I sifted through bins of LEGOs looking for enough green blocks to make a tree the right size for Fuzzy. Bleary-eyed, I ditched the fir idea, found a half-built Star Wars LEGO vehicle in the playroom, stuck on a few stairs and an owl from a Harry Potter LEGO set, put the elf and Star Wars creation on the mantle and called it a night. My son was non-plussed. Over breakfast, he penned a letter to Santa asking him to keep Fuzzy out of his LEGOs. This year, I’m tempted to rest Fuzzy on the bathroom sink with dental floss and a note that reads, “Santa says to floss.” Or pose Fuzzy at the clothes hamper attempting to put the wet towels where they belong. But my son wouldn’t have any idea what Fuzzy was doing or why. Christmas, after all, is a time of wonder, not confusion.
There’s a suburban myth circulating that one mom takes photos of each day’s elaborate elf adventures until Dec. 20th or so, when her family’s elf leaves “for North Pole emergencies,” giving her just enough time to create and order a custom online scrapbook of that year’s elf fun for under the Christmas tree. Even eschewing digital documentary efforts and creative capers, elf ownership is a pressure cooker. “The elf terrorizes me,” my friend Kristen admits. “It’s the Tooth Fairy every night for a month.” She has panic attacks when it’s 6:30 a.m., her three kids start to stir and she realizes that the elf is exactly where it was when they went to bed. Panic continues while she and her husband frantically try to relocate the elf without being detected.
I’ve been there many a morning. My solution has been to lie to my son about why the elf didn’t move. But I can’t stop hauling out Fuzzy until my son stops believing in Santa Claus, which I thought was going to be this year, until a few months ago. Well before Halloween, my son asked me if I thought Fuzzy could play video games while he slept, certain that Fuzzy has mad PlayStation skills to work through frustrating game levels. If Fuzzy is going to master something in our household, it sure as hell isn’t going to be the game console. My vote is the dishwasher. Or maybe the garbage disposal, in which Fuzzy could suffer a catastrophic fate. Look for my R.I.P. Elf Instagram posts soon, once I find an elf-sized memorial wreath on Etsy. I wonder if they come in poinsettias.