An enumeration of everything that's wrong with the holiday toy
You may have heard of the Elf on the Shelf, or you may not have. A lot depends on whether or not you have kids, and how old they are (the Elf's target consumers are families with very little kids) and where you live (the Elf hails from Marietta, Georgia, and an informal poll of my Facebook friends indicates that his biggest fan base is suburban—more on that later).
If you're unfamiliar with the phenomenon, this is what you need to know: It's a doll that parents place around the house during run-up to Christmas. Parents warn their kids that the Elf is watching them to be sure they're being good. It's massively popular, with annual sales of $10 million and an expanding product line that now includes several versions of the Elf doll, plus book and DVD. And I detest it. How do I hate the Elf on the Shelf? Let me count the ways.
It's a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a "tradition." Yes, all traditions are ultimately man-made and therefore artificial, but there's something uniquely fake about the Elf. Sisters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts grew up with an elf, Fisbee, who arrived at their house on Thanksgiving, took up a new position each day in their house, and departed at Christmas. Chanda and her mother, Carol Aebersold, wrote up their elf's story and Christa took a leave of absence from her job with QVC to help them self-publish the book in 2005 (after several publishers had turned them down). By the end of 2010, they had sold 1.5 million copies. In November 2011, an Elf on the Shelf movie aired on CBS. All this for a book and doll that cobbles together elements from the pop-cultural junkheap in a not-very-original way. The doll is a bit of Disney's Pinocchio mixed with Peter Pan, the book a plodding rhyming thing slightly less well-written than your average greeting card. And the whole certificate of-adoption thing? Straight out of the Cabbage Patch.
Other relatively newfangled holiday traditions have often started slowly and gained traction—watching Will Ferrel's Elf, for instance (no relation, by the way), or Love, Actually (whose reviews were tepid, actually, before it gradually won us all over). They worm their way into our hearts, becoming holiday traditions, rather than bowling us over with strident demands. Instant popularity and cult-like fans (thousands of whom complained after a Good Morning America segment in which host Lara Spencer was apparently inappropriately friendly with the Elf—they aren't supposed to be touched, lest their magical powers drain away—leading to this mortifying on-air apology) do not a classic make. If they did, Justin Bieber would be an American institution.
Furthermore, by insisting that the Elf's job begins on Thanksgiving, the Elf on the Shelf contributes to holiday creep, intruding on the one holiday that hasn't been sullied by product tie-ins or faux legends—unless you count the myths and stories about that fabled first Thanksgiving. The creep is commercial, too. Unlike holiday favorites that cost little or no money—reciting 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, decorating the tree together with hand-me-down and homemade ornaments, singing carols—the Elf is an endless opportunity to purchase things. There's the Elf itself, packaged with the book; the plush Elf (for cuddling, as the "real" Elf can't be touched); the Elf accessories (a skirt to make your Elf a girl is new this year); and the DVD. A woman in the Atlanta suburbs—epicenter of Elf mania - reports that she knows families in which the Elf not only starts work on Thanksgiving, he begins dispensing gifts then, too. "They bring presents—actual wrapped gifts—EVERY day until Christmas," she told me. "Also, some elves we know of have done things like bake cookies or a cake for their children after they are asleep." All of which leads me to my next objection:
The Elf drives mothers crazy. In places where nearly every family boasts an Elf, an arms race occurs, egged on by kids bringing home stories of what their classmates' elves are up to. Part of the Elf Legend is that the Elf returns each night to the North Pole, to tell Santa what's going on in the household where he lives. Each morning he returns, landing in a different spot. But it's not enough in some neighborhoods just to move the Elf each night while the kids sleep; mothers buy and wrap gifts for the Elf to distribute, bake cookies, write little notes.