When I first learned about The Elf On The Shelf, my mind was filled with a kind of burning, frustrated rage at the impertinence, audacity, greed, blatant consumerism and profit-driven publicity that it represented and encouraged. I couldn’t imagine that ANYONE would want to buy or use one of these elves – these things that I considered creepy and phony.
I was wrong, though — the Elf has been embraced by millions of happy Americans and their children. ( If you don’t know what “The Elf” is, well, first of all, welcome to the 21st century, and BTW, Obama is our president, and it’s December.) The “Elf On The Shelf” is a small cloth elf toy which parents buy and place somewhere special in the house. Then, according to the package instructions, they inform their children that the Elf is there to spy on their behavior 24/7 and report back to Santa on whether they’re being good. Every night, the parents are supposed to move the Elf to a new location so the kids KNOW it’s real; often the parents create whole scenes for the Elf (so the kids find it watching a movie and eating popcorn, having moved all the clothes out of the closet – what an imp! – you get the idea.)
I was horrified by this elf, although honestly, the horror is less at the elf ITSELF and more with the ease and fluency with which our culture accepts a brand new financially-motivated toy as a bona fide tradition to be celebrated along with our durable, time-worn traditions of Christmas. I suppose I want traditions to come from something more meaningful at heart, if they’re going to be adopted by millions and turned into something as real to them – as LIFELONG “real” – as Jesus and Santa. I’m not even very religious; we barely go to church in my family, and we’re as secular as it gets. But in my heart I want to believe in Christmas, and I love the spirit of Christmas, and I want it to remain pure and unsmeared with commercial crap.
But then Santa too is a fantasy creation, not even that old, and I worry about coupling Santa too tightly with the meaning of Christmas. When Santa is too prominent, the true meaning of the season – of giving and love - is diminished. And then if a new ELF is brought in, it adds another layer of phoniness to the scheme; now it’s not just Santa, but his helper ELF, who watches and reports back and requires purchases to be made (you can now buy books, ornaments, and clothes for the elf.) Suddenly the whole meaning of Christmas is obscured further beneath a swath of buying and spending and pretending.
I understand that many people feel that the Elf brings a certain magic to their lives. It adds the joy and the thrill of discovery to their children’s morning as they find the elf in a new spot, perhaps with a gift for them to open.
And I GET that, but if we’re really going to celebrate what Christmas is about, perhaps we should create the magic ourselves, together with our families. Instead of relying on an external force (and a phony, commercially generated one at that) to provide our children’s “magic,” maybe WE should be the ones who bake the cookies and play the tricks and set up the tableaux – we should be openly responsible for creating the fun every day.
Delegating the “fun-making” to the Elf teaches our kids, in a subtle yet certain way, that joy is to be GIVEN to us, not made ourselves. Let’s show our kids how to MAKE our own joy. Magic shouldn’t come from a box fabricated overseas by workers who don’t even celebrate our holidays. Magic should come from the way we spend time together.
Also, the elf is just plain creepy looking. It’s the kind of thing that you find in a 2nd hand store; the kind of thing that comes alive at night! And gets you! While you’re sleeping! Watch out!
Luckily, my sisters Maria and Erica feel the same way I do about the elf (at least the hating it part.) And over Thanksgiving we had a LOT of fun together with the elf. We mimicked some of the pictures that the serious elf-moms do, except ours were a little less…wholesome.
Oh my God, we had the best time with this elf. Some of us even had fun ALONE with the elf. We laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. We shared many hours of joy together bonding over our silliness with the elf. The elf even put itself onto my Facebook profile (it may be time to consider a screen lock password, BTW.)
And suddenly I started to think to myself: “Hey, maybe this Elf thing isn’t so horrible after all!” All of this joy and laughter that we were creating together was sparked by...the Elf! (Although: it doesn’t take much for us to get going with our laughter. Also on the mirth-wagon this year were Miley Cyrus and her wrecking ball, fart-absorbing underpants, What Does The Fox Say, Unique Thrift Store & the many wonderful things therein, Bleu Cheese, and countless others. We really are responsible for our own hilarity…we just use whatever is near as a prop to get us laughing.)
And I do have respect for the creativity that many moms and dads show when they make elf scenes. Some of it is pretty cool. I know they are doing it because it’s fun for the kids and for themselves; they’re doing it for the same reason that my sisters and I pose it with sex books — to forget, if even for a moment, the stress of life.
So I guess we’re not all that different, the Elf Lovers and the Elf Haters. Whether we enjoy posing the elf for our kids or mocking it, we’re all just striving to add some fun to our lives, those magical moments where we forget troubles and stress and anxiety, those moments of joy that live like bright sparks in our memory bank. Like Republicans and Democrats, we can reach together over the aisle and together we can place the Elf into the naughty sections at Spencer’s in the mall. (Just Kidding! The Elf is WAY more hardcore than that!)
I’m going to keep hating the fact that the elf has so quickly wormed its way into the heart of our Christmas tradition, which I had hoped would stay true to the things with which *I* grew up; I’m going to keep feeling annoyance at the herd mentality of the Americans who so easily latch onto the newest shiny consumer item and whole-heartedly embrace it; I’ll keep bemoaning the fact that the Elf represents a new low for our culture in terms of how diluted our enjoyment of Christmas has become.
But I know that other people don’t really think about these things like I do, and that they just want to have some fun, and for that I applaud their efforts. And for the fact that we all just want joy – THAT I will appreciate in everyone!
And whether you love the Elf or hate it, remember to give your loved ones some joy and magic that comes freely from YOU – not funneled through another medium, but through your own beautiful smile and laugh and ideas. Make sure that you spend moments with your special people, making your own Christmas magic together.
The elves are sure working on it!