We Can Do Better, Elf on the Shelf

I’ve known about Elf on the Shelf for a year or two (roughly coinciding with the amount of time I’ve been a parent), but it only vaguely entered my consciousness. However, this year, it’s very difficult to avoid the Elf.

For those of you who’ve managed to not have Elf enthusiasts with kids on your Facebook feed, the Elf on the Shelf figurine is the creation of two entrepreneurs. It is part of a pre-Christmas ritual: The elf is hidden in various areas of the house so he can watch and report back to Santa each night at the North Pole. There is a whole line of Elf on the Shelf products, and there are three or four spin-off lines. Sales of EotS were $16.6 million in 2011, and if the number of pins on Pinterest this year are any indication, the Elf will not be hitting the road any time soon.

A picture of the Elf on a Shelf musical lamppost.
Chippy, the Elf on the Shelf musical lamppost, because that’s where line extension gets you. Available at

I have mixed feelings about Elf on the Shelf. On the one hand, I am a strong supporter of entrepreneurship. It’s what makes America (or should I say, Amurricah) great. The creators of this product have clearly tapped into some sort of need Americas have for a Christmas tradition, and they’ve ridden that all the way to the bank. I also give them props for having elves with darker and lighter skin, and for having male and female elves.

But here’s where I have problems: The Elves aren’t decorations, they’re parts of a carefully dictated tradition, with rules on how to use them. The Elves can’t be touched and they can’t talk during the day. Their role is already proscribed: They are spies for Santa. So where is the creativity? The answer is where the elves are hidden and how they are embellished. People can get pretty creative — hanging them from lamps, hiding them in the fridge, having them make “snow angels” out of salt on the floor. It’s very cute, but it raises the question, even with the variations about where the elf is placed, how different is one person’s Elf tradition from another person’s Elf tradition? (“My mom spelled out ‘Help Mom!’ in M&Ms next to the elf.” “Oh, my God, so did mine, but she wrote, ‘Help me.'”)

The answer is: It isn’t. And now that I’m old enough to be a parent myself, I can see that when the time comes for my children to fondly remember what we did around the holidays, I want what we do to be things that have meaning to us and our family, not something that 10 million other families happen to do. It doesn’t even mean that we have to be wildly creative. We just have to make the things that we do important to us.

I’ll give you some examples of what I mean: We have two Chinese Foo dogs statues on our front porch, one on each side of the door. On Halloween, we put witches’ hats on them. On Christmas, it’s bows or Santa Claus hats, and on Mardi Gras, we put beads on them. We poorly assemble a gingerbread house that violates all of the gingerbread building codes. We make gingerbread men, and while my daughter and I carefully decorate ours, my son pretends to do the same, but instead methodically and happily consumes his. Is any of this wildly creative? No. But those are our rituals.

A picture of Foo Dogs.
These Foo Dogs are much more magnificent than the ones next to our doors, but that’s effectively what we decorate. (Copyright has expired for this image.)

We live in a world where there is a lot of room for self-expression and imagination. There is clearly no dearth of creativity in a world full of Etsy shops, memes, apps, scrapbooks, and blogs. Have confidence in yourself to create your own family traditions. I’m sure they’ll be awesome. And if you still want to get an Elf to ensure good behavior, may I suggest this guy instead? If I knew this Elf was hanging around, I’d definitely walk the straight and narrow.

A sketch of an elf-like man reading a book.
Now this guy is creepy. (Photo is in the public domain.)


By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

14 replies on “We Can Do Better, Elf on the Shelf”

I never heard of Elf on the Shelf before I started actively visiting American websites. I think Advent calendars are the closest to it, because you get a daily gift (aka cheap chocolate if you don’t get a German one)?

STFUP gave me plenty of horror stories about it though. Dictator Elves or parents using them to drive the fear of Christmas into their children.

A family tradition of disliking something together — that brings me back to my childhood, and I’m not kidding. We were a very stereotypically Irish family, though — we bonded through strongly held dislike of small, seemingly innocuous things.

I don’t blame your daughter — those eyes are unnerving.

I’m REALLY glad my daughter is more into buying the American Girl books and pets than the dolls. She loves looking at the catalogs, but thankfully knows that she is not the sort of girl who wants a $100 doll. Plus she doesn’t like that they don’t have one with the right red hair like hers.

I’m glad you have traditions that you enjoy. So do we and one of them is our elf. We made up our own rules for what he does and my older daughter is now the main force behind moving him around for her younger sister. It may not be the most original thing in the world but it is fun and sweet and that’s good enough for me.

I don’t know, I think traditions have meaning to you if you give meaning to the traditions.

When my kids were little we watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year. So did millions of other people. We got up and danced like the head-shaking twins every time. So did a lot of other people, I’m sure. But what was important was what was happening in *our* house. My kids still remember that.

I don’t think popularity invalidates a tradition.

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