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.
Not that some of them aren't into it, as this Pinterest board demonstrates. But 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? My suburban friend reports that some mothers have their Elf "go 'on strike' or disappear for days to 'punish' their kids." Giving up the Elf might just be good for your marriage. As Jeanne Eschenberg Sager, a blogger for Café Mom, says, "We have better things to do with the few moments we get at night as a couple after she goes to bed!
By far the worst thing about the Elf, though, is its message, its story, its raison d'etre: to spy on kids. "I watch and report on all that you do!" he warns in the book, later adding that "the word will get out if you broke a rule." The Elf solicits the child's Christmas wishes—for gifts, not for peace on earth or a cure for cancer—and tells them to Santa. Then, after a month of observing the child's behavior from his hiding place, the Elf tells Santa whether she's on the Nice list, or the Naughty one.
I'm not alone in giving the Elf the side-eye. On the book's Amazon page, a small but vocal minority points out that their child found the Elf scary, or that their child behaved wonderfully in December, only to become a total terror the other 11 months of the year, because hey, morality is all about punishment and reward. The word "narc" appears in several of these negative reviews (so does "creepy"), and it's what many of my friends brought up as well: Why inject a note of fear and suspicion into a season and a holiday that are meant to be about love, togetherness, and forgiveness? Perhaps, Christmas aside, raising morally aware children requires we go several steps beyond the concept of a naughty/nice dichotomy.
But what if you already have an Elf? And there are things about it you kind of like? "We got ours as a gift," a friend of mine in Philadelphia says. "It's fun—a little extra Christmas magic every day. I don't do crazy things with it—just move it around. I named him Kurt Hummel because he looks like the kid from Glee." To me, this is the best of all possible uses for an Elf or any other Christmas talisman—as something a bit magical, mostly because it's rare and usually boxed away. Holidays can be magical, but magic can't be forced. When I was little, we had a little carved wooden music box that played "Silent Night" while a Father Christmas character and a tree rotated in ever-slowing circles. It was special because it meant Christmas to us—but it was also mysterious, partly because we never saw anything like it at K-Mart, and because it seemed unique to our family. Because nobody ever told us a story about it, we got to make up our own.
An object that disappears and reappears is wonderfully fun—but it doesn't have to be something from a store or someone else's imagination, much less a committee's. If you have an Elf, make up your own story about what he's doing in your house—the weirder the better. Do not like him on Facebook. Do not use him to bully your child into thinking that good behavior equals gifts—if Christmas means anything religious to you at all, isn't it that goodness is its own gift?