I’d heard about “The Elf on the Shelf” and how good it was. Fellow parents relayed how much fun the book and accompanying tradition was. I was thrilled when our copy from the library arrived. I planned to sit down and read it to Penelope when I got home. When the time came I read each page out loud and felt a knot in my stomach. Like singing a duet of “Afternoon Delight” with a family member, the saccharine facade fell with each line.
“The Elf on the Shelf” brilliantly capitalizes on the omniscient presence of Santa Claus. Authors Carol V Aebersold and Chanda a Bell crafted a candy coated story detailing how Santa gathers intelligence via spying elves. The elf on the shelf is a recon man, a logical extrapolation of the question “how does Santa know if I’ve been naughty or nice?”
Every year, the story goes, an eponymous elf arrives in each home. Once the elf is spotted children are instructed to name the elf. In the evening while children are slumbering all the elves head back to the North Pole. Once there each elf sits upon Santa’s lap and divulges the dirt on each child’s behavior. Once the reports are submitted each elf returns to their assigned home and hides in a new location. When the children wake their first task is to find the elf.
In order to maintain the believability of this yarn the authors wove a caveat into the tradition. Lest children discover the ruse by taking the elf to bed, a warning is given; touch the elf and he cannot return to Santa. If the elf can’t report back to Santa, Santa won’t know if the children were naughty or nice. And if he doesn’t know whether they were naughty or nice Santa can’t bring any gifts. If the child murdered someone this sounds like a great option. “Touch the elf Jimmy. Santa will never know!” After all, who would want that kind of news reported back to Ole’ Saint Nick?
I can hear the objections already. “But isn’t this the same tale we tell all children about Christmas, just adding a little fun activity to the tradition?” Yes, at its core everything is the same. An invisible presence is watching over our actions and deciding our material gains based on our track record of behavior. There’s nothing new there. Somehow adding the elf to the tradition amplifies the sinister nature of our being watched every waking moment. In that Rockwell “Somebody’s Watching Me” creepy way, not the Franki Valli “Can’t Take My Eye’s Off You” adoring fashion.
Like most parents I want our daughter to be well behaved. By that I mean conscientious of herself, her actions, and how they affect herself and others. I want her to be a force for positive change because she cares. Not because a mythical creature is watching every move she makes. Not because being good results in a bigger haul at Christmas time. And not for a reason she will find out in a few short years is a fabrication.
Maybe I’m making more out of this than is warranted. For most children the moment of disillusionment regarding Santa’s existence is a blip. For others (like Brad Pitt), parental trust erodes a bit when the lie is uncovered. I’m much more comfortable with the truth. Family and friends chose the gifts. We decide what is given after considering what is wanted. And most importantly, our daughter’s worthiness is not determined on behavior.
Ultimately each parent must decide what they’re comfortable with and I heartily acknowledge this. I am not on a crusade against Santa Claus, The Elf on the Shelf, or the Easter Bunny. I’m not in the least affected or bothered by other families’ insistence on the beauty of the Christmas traditions of gifts dispersed from the North Pole via flying reindeer.