The Unnecessary Stress of Elf on the Shelf

The Unnecessary Stress of Elf on the Shelf

I was wandering through a Barnes & Noble about five years ago when I stumbled upon a giant display of something called “Elf on the Shelf.” Despite the box referring to it as “A Christmas Tradition,” I’d never heard of it. Who is this red-clothed elf? And what does he want with my shelf?

Turns out, Elf on the Shelf is a Big Brother-esque character who shows up each morning to watch over children and determine whether they should be on Santa’s naughty or nice list. Santa’s busy, you see, what with the skyrocketing increase in global population, so he needs little elves to help him spy on kids around the world — or at least spy on those suburban kids whose parents have enough money to spend on yet another asinine Christmas fad.

Anyway, the story is that the Elf remains still in one place all day long, and then when children are asleep at night, he — or she, Santa has an equitable workplace — flies back to the North Pole to dish on everything the little ones are doing. They’re basically like covert CIA operatives, but in way cuter outfits.

The next day, when the kiddos wake up, they find their Elf is in a different location in the house. Their very special friend flew all the way back from the North Pole and chose a new perch from which to take mental notes. It’s magic!

To ensure kids keep their grubby little hands off the Elf (and thus learn too quickly that this “magical elf” is really just a plastic doll, which would lead to an entire unraveling of the Santa folklore), there’s a book that comes with the Elf that explains how critical it is to NEVER TOUCH IT.

 
From “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition” by Carol V. Aebersold & Chanda A. Bell (Photo by Sandra Ebejer.)

From “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition” by Carol V. Aebersold & Chanda A. Bell (Photo by Sandra Ebejer.)

 

In other words, “You touch the Elf, you don’t get toys.” It’s a twisted tale that fits right in with the entire Santa narrative.

That Fateful Day

So, there I was, in the store, eyeing the stack of Elf on the Shelf dolls when it hit me just how insane this item is.

A doll to watch over your kid? And you have to move it every day in order to keep up the ruse? And put it in a place where your kid doesn’t touch it? And it’s a tradition you have to maintain EVERY year? F this. I’m out.

Ha. If only.

I bought the doll. My son was one-year-old and I was still in that phase of “OMG everything is sooooo cuuuuutttteee and I want traditions coming out my ears the holidays are magical let’s buy it all!!”

(I was delirious from lack of sleep.)

So, I bought the Elf. We named him Bob because that was the only name my young son could pronounce. Bob has been a part of our Christmas lives for five years now and given my child’s absolute conviction that Bob is real, it appears he’s not going to be leaving us anytime soon.

Let me give you a little glimpse into what holiday life has been like with Bob:

  • My husband and I have spent a decent chunk of time each night between Thanksgiving and Christmas trying to find a new, fun, out of reach place for Bob to sit watch. We have officially used every high shelf, light fixture, mantle, Christmas tree branch, and clock available, and as of this writing, the holiday is still eight days away.

 
 
  • There are many mornings when my son wakes, rubs his eyes, and mumbles in a sleepy voice, “I wonder where Bob is today?” At this point I realize we forgot to move Bob the night before, and I surreptitiously mouth to my husband, “Shit! Move the Elf!” over my child’s head and try to keep him distracted while my spouse rushes down the stairs to relocate the “magical” Bob.

  • On the upside, my husband and I have become creative storytellers in our attempts to answer our son’s many questions about why we can’t touch Bob, what happens if the cats touch Bob, whether Bob has a family, where Bob lives when he’s not with us, and so on and so forth. We now have five years of backstory on Bob, which I plan to turn into a scandalous tell-all once my son is old enough to no longer believe that Bob moves himself from place to place.

  • Because we lived in Los Angeles and spent Christmas on the east coast for the first four years of my son’s life, Bob has followed us on many out-of-town trips, requiring careful unpacking of suitcases so as to not let my son see Bob lying dormant in one of our bags. So far, our Elf has been to Los Angeles, Boston, Albany, New York City, and Melbourne, Florida — more cities than some people visit in a lifetime.

This Elf Thing is Getting Out of Control

When I was a kid, the Santa story had only one main character: the big man himself.

Back in my day, parents perpetuated the Santa tale by bringing us kids to see him in person at the local mall. We’d sit on his lap, wonder why his beard looked so crooked, and ignore the creepiness of sitting on a stranger’s thighs while having our photo taken. Then we’d wake before dawn on Christmas morning and shout cheers of jubilation as we ripped into the gifts Santa had left for us.

 
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That was how the story went for many, many, many years.

Now, there are new story lines, additional chapters, and added players. The Elf on the Shelf is a big deal and nearly as important as Santa himself.

And being good little consumers, we’ve bought into it. First, we got the Elf. Then, we got creative with our Elf displays. Soon, we had entire Pinterest boards showing off how crazy we could get with our Elf and putting other parents to shame with their basic Elf poses.

Now, you can buy clothes for your Elf. Or give him his own pet St. Bernard or Reindeer. You can have your little one write a Christmas letter to Santa that the Elf will deliver. You can provide him with a fuzzy bathrobe and slippers (sensual massage not included).

And if you’ve reached your breaking point and just can’t move the damn Elf anymore, the Elf on the Shelf website has got your back.

Why Do We Do This to Ourselves?

The holidays are a stressful time. We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really care about as we eat food that increases our waistline. We listen to music telling us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” while watching news reports of fist fights breaking out over Black Friday sales.

And we squeeze an entire year’s worth of parties, shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, eating, visiting, and card sending into a four-week window, all while trying to remain bright and cheery. No wonder suicides spike this time of year.

So why, amidst all this work, do we add more in? Why, as parents, do we make life so much harder on ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m so happy my son believes in Santa. Given the negativity in the world, I want him to believe in something wondrous for as long as possible. And if Bob helps to keep the fable going for a bit, I’m all for it.

But I’m going to stop there. The Elf is more than enough.

Bob doesn’t need a fancy outfit or a dog to keep him company. He doesn’t need a sleeping bag or earmuffs or time in a hot tub with Barbie.

He was a fine little purchase that we’ll use for as long as my child enjoys seeing him. And when my son is grown, we’ll pass Bob down to him to use with his own children, if he chooses. BUT we’ll do so with the plea that he uses Bob as-is, no additional accessories or work or stress needed.

The holidays are fa-la-la-la-la-laborious enough.

A version of this post also appeared on Medium

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