What is Elf on the Shelf? Best ideas, names and where to buy

Everything you need to know about the hit festive toy

The Elf on the Shelf balloon floats in Columbus Circle during the 91st Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 23,
An Elf on the Shelf balloon at the 91st Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York last month
(Image credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Santa sees kids when they’re sleeping, he knows when they’re awake, he knows when they’ve been bad or good - but sometimes he still needs a helping hand. That’s where the Elf on the Shelf comes in.

The idea goes that the popular festive toy watches children and reports their behaviour to the big man, but how did the whole thing begin?

What is Elf on the Shelf?

The holiday toy first appeared in a children’s picture book published in the US in 2005. Titled The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, the book tells the tale of how Father Christmas, or Santa as he’s known Stateside, sends “scout elves” to hide in people’s homes, watch their activities throughout the day and then report back to him while everyone sleeps.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

“Each night while you’re sleeping/to Santa I’ll fly,” the book says. “I’ll tell him if you have been good or bad. The news of the day makes him happy or sad… I’ll be back at your home before you awake, and then you must find the new spot I will take.”

The book, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell about their own Christmas tradition, was initally rejected by a string of editors and publishers, so the family decided to self-publish. Over the next couple of years, the book slowly gained a following in American households. Then, in 2007, actress Jennifer Garner was photographed carrying Elf on the Shelf and the concept really took off.

“It moved across the pond to the UK in recent years, and grew into other merchandise including a figure of the book’s character,” the Daily Mirror says.

Spy games

More than 11 million scout elf toys have been sold worldside, and nine countries now have “Santa-approved” Scout Elf Adoption Centres, according to the official Elf on the Shelf website.

Parents all over the world recreate the story in their homes, using their own scout elves to “watch” their children and report their behaviour to Santa. Savvy mums and dads move their elf to a different place every night, so that their kids wake up to find it in a different location each morning.

“Some parents also opt to leave small presents alongside the elf, giving the impression it is rewarding their well-behaved offspring with gifts from Santa,” says the Mirror.

Pick a name

Naming an elf toy may seem like a simple task but, according to lifestyle blog The Surburban Mom, it is imbued with great significance.

“When you first welcome your Elf on the Shelf into your home, your family will be tasked with naming your elf,” the site says. “While you can name your elf anything your family likes, since this is an annual holiday tradition you are starting you probably want to come up with a name that you will all be happy with year after year. (That means leaving the naming completely up to your toddler might not be the best course of action.)”

Some families, however, have decided not to take the naming too seriously.

“Our Elf on the Shelf provides us with endless hours of holiday amusement, so we have named her Elf DeGeneres,” one mum and Ellen DeGeneres fan told the Mommy Upgrade blog.

“Ours is named Happy Meal. My son had a Happy Meal for lunch the day the elf arrived,” another mum said.

The site lists more than 100 name ideas, including Boots, Chibby and Pickles for a boy elf, and Moonlight, Winnie and Gingersnap for a girl.

Other names lists are also doing the rounds in the lead-up to Christmas:

See more

Finding a place

As Elf on the Shelf gains popularity in the UK, Newcastle-based news website ChronicleLive recently asked its readers for ideas on where to position their elf while kids sleep.

One family positioned their elf zip-lining from the Christmas tree to another part of the room, while another elf went fishing for fish-shaped crackers in a toilet. Many of the best ideas feature the elf interacting with other objects and toys in the house.

See more

Some social media users pull out all the stops to surprise their kids when they wake.

See more
See more

The Elf on the Shelf website also has plenty of potential placement ideas.

Where to buy

The book and a toy elf is £29.95 from the Elf on the Shelf website, and is also available from a range of UK retailers, along with a variety of other merchandise.

Merry memes

Elf on a Shelf has attracted its fair share of controversy. Although many view it as a heart-warming holiday tradition, others find it creepy.

Some particularly passionate critics have posted their criticism on the Amazon website, reports the Mirror. One mother wrote: “Horrible passive-aggressive doll that ‘watches you’ then tells on you to Santa. My four year old cried and didn’t want it in the house.”

However, both critics and fans agree on one thing: the elf makes a great meme.

Earlier this year, social media exploded with posts referencing the Elf on the Shelf with other rhyming pairs of words. Here are some of the best...

Like Shrek on a deck.

See more

And even goats on a boat.

See more

The Coronation Street-themed Gail on a whale.

See more

Other memes have shown parents letting the scout elves get up to no good.

See more
See more
See more

Elf and safety

Educational specialist Dr Laura Pinto has her doubts about the elf, despite owning one herself - named Jeremy Bentham after the philosopher who came up with the philosophy of Utilitarianism.

Pinto, of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, told Today that parents risk normalising the idea of surveillance to their children. She said: “The fact is, I think the elf is super cute and very interesting as a retro aesthetic. My criticism is about the official rules of the toy. Parents need to be able to do what they need to do, and I don’t want to criticise that. My work is to get people to think about what they’re doing and make an informed decision. Parents are creative, so instead of the elf just being up to silly high jinks, they could let the elf be an entry to any conversation they want their children to be talking and thinking about.”

Parenting expert Dr Deborah Gilboa agrees that it is up to parents to decide how to use the toy in a way that enriches their children’s festive experience. “Parents are experts on their own kids,” she told Today, “and they’ll know how to use this to add joy instead of take it away.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.