In case you've been living under a rock, there's a new Christmas Elf in town and it's gaining popular support. Or rather, it's on a shelf, somewhere in your house, stalking your children, looking somewhat like a changeling with wide vacant eyes. It's reporting back to its master somewhere in the North Pole, and deciding whether your child has been naughty or nice.
Elf on the Shelf History
It started out as a self-published book by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell in 2005, initially publishing 300 copies. Elf on the Shelf has since taken off like Christmas cookies and can be found infiltrating holiday culture with numerous pixie-ish plush elf and DVD tie-ins.
Elves are not new to Christmas, of course. Their present-day place in Christmas folklore harkens back to Scandinavian Christmas celebrations — even down to Danish nisser elves which would keep an eye out for naughty children for Father Christmas.
Aebersold and Bell had the wise temerity to write this all down and market it to unsuspecting American audiences — which seem to have bought this thing elf, bank, and sucker. But never mind the clever marketing for a minute. What exactly is the pathology of this elf-stalker who begins his undercover double agent mission sometime after Thanksgiving and completes it on Christmas Eve?
A Different Kind of Doll
First of all, in the tradition of the American Girl doll series, the elves are multicultural and bi-gendered. They are designed to 'look' like your child, so if your child is Chinese from Africa with green eyes, there is an elf for you. We have become accustomed to dolls 'looking like us' for a while now. The underlining rationale here is that children will play better with things like them rather than not like them.
But the doll's actions truly send a bizarre message. The elf on the shelf is the ultimate in creepy stalker. It spies on children and reports back to a superior who will determine whether children have been good or bad. The parents, of course, are in on the deal. Parents take the elf from the shelf and hide it somewhere else in the house while the wee ones are innocently sleeping.
We lie to our children enough. Do we really need this one too?
More Competition Among Parents
Moms are trying to out-do other moms in all things Elf Shelf. Some leave out milk and cookies Others create elaborate housing and hiding places. Some mothers have invited multiple elves into their homes. It's one more thing mothers who have actual work to do in the world will be judged for.
Fundamentally at fault here is the premise. The Elf — a non-human creature — casts judgment upon fallible human children. For the children, the message is clear. Don't exhibit bad behaviors because those behaviors are morally and ethically wrong, but instead don't do them because someone could be watching you. Inappropriate behavior should be wrong because the child knows the behavior is inappropriate or wrong.
By reinforcing the idea that your bad deed needs to be seen to be considered bad is not the moral high ground parents should be seeking.
Every culture has its mythologies to scare its children. Mexican and Mexican-American children have La Llorona who, if you are bad, might snatch you away from your family or mistake you for her own lost children. La Llorona is meant to be feared. The elf, on the other hand, is pretending to be your friend, looks cute and harmless while backstabbing you with your indiscretions.
What kind of message is that to kids?
So for all of you too tired for this round of commercializing and trending of our already endangered holiday traditions, remember that we do have the ability to: Just. Say. No.