I first became aware of the ‘elf on the shelf’ in December 2019 when a friend at work, who has two young boys, showed me photos of the mischievous little imp and his shenanigans. I was so enamoured with the charming chap, I hoped to find him wrapped as my Secret Santa gift that year. He wasn’t. With no young children in the household, I have been able to live vicariously through said friend as she has shared the nocturnal antics of the elf with me.
A picture book written by American Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell in 2005 sparked the phenomenon of the ‘elf on the shelf’, telling the story of a scout elf sent from the north pole who reports back to Santa each night to help him compile his naughty and nice list. When the elf returns to the household each morning he surprises the children by appearing in different places and getting into all sorts of predicaments.
The magic begins when the elf is adopted by a family and given a name but if the elf is touched, his powers will disappear. You can speak to the elf and tell him your Christmas wishes so he can let Santa know each night.
The story ends when the elf leaves on Christmas Day to stay with Santa for the rest of the year until the following Christmas season.
I know I am not alone in my appreciation of this enchanting concept but it seems there are some with a different viewpoint. In 2011, a Washington Post reviewer described it as, “just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes”
and a year later, a psychologist referred to it as a “dangerous parental crutch”, with much the same reasoning as what he terms the “Santa lie”. I wonder how many adults today are suffering because their parents let them believe in Santa Claus for a few years?
Professor Laura Pinto has had a lot to say on the subject, none of it from a child’s perspective. In summation, she suggests that it conditions kids to accept the surveillance state and that it communicates to children that “it’s okay for other people to spy on you, and you’re not entitled to privacy.” She argues that “if you grow up thinking it’s cool for the elves to watch me and report back to Santa, well, then it’s cool for the NSA to watch me and report back to the government”. I find that very sad in a world where the innocence of children seems to be of diminishing importance and childhood itself is increasingly fleeting.
An article in December 2019 by a Sun-Herald senior writer takes it to the extreme. She laments that, “The unintended consequence is it traps parents in an exhausting game, while teaching our kids to be comfortable with surveillance” and “have you considered how hard it might be to stop? Realistically, you are committed for the rest of the Christmas season and every year after that until all the children are old enough to know it’s not real”. So, it’s all about the parent and how difficult it is to do something that brings joy to their offspring for a few days each year of their childhood.
This came next, “If this all sounds like hard work, you’re right. Social media is full of exhausted parents racking their brains over the elf”. Is it so hard because it involves a little ingenuity and doesn’t require a mobile phone, iPad or laptop? Perhaps a little less social media and a little more interaction with your children would make for a more satisfying experience.
Here’s the kicker, “the real deal breaker for me is that the Elf on the Shelf is a creep. The idea of having a doll in your house that spies on you and rewards you with presents seems like a great way to prime our future citizens to accept ubiquitous surveillance and focus on being good little consumers”. This is not how children think, it is the flawed workings of damaged adult minds.
Christmas lost its magic for me many years ago but small things, like the elf on the shelf, stir something that I am very happy to feel again. I am looking forward to seeing the little fella in December.