As a parent, I consider Christmas the most joyful of all the holidays, but not for the reasons you might think. The presents are fine and the food is nice. And who doesn't love a thoughtfully bedazzled tree, slowly dying in their living room? But the real reason Christmas is great is because I can hold it over my kids. "I'm calling Santa to cancel your presents" is the threat that keeps on giving.
And the tiny cheerleader for this grand parental tradition? Elf on the Shelf. If you've never heard of Elf on the Shelf, it's not because your parents stiffed you; it's because it was only first brought to market in 2005. It's a plush toy that's also a spy, though I'll admit I only discovered the espionage part after I'd already sprung for Santa's Secret Agent in Target late last year and belatedly ran a background check.
Elves are supposed to watch your kids from a high vantage point in the home and tattle to Santa if they see any naughty behavior. But they don't have iPhones or email, so to make their report they must commute to the North Pole. Every. Single. Night. It's a system as inefficient as it is creepy. And each morning, your offspring must find their elf, which, having trudged from your house to Santa's and back again, will have repositioned itself somewhere new in your house.
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Now for really weird part: Children are not under any circumstances allowed to touch Elf on the Shelf as this, my dears, will switch off their magic. Well now that just seems cruel. Our elf doesn't get a salary or even so much as removable mittens and now we're depriving him of hugs? No way. And penalizing a child for touching a treasured toy? Insanity. But with a few tweaks to the rules, I could actually see this ritual being an effective tool in the loving domicile/juvenile correctional facility that I run out of my apartment.
And so, Elfie (there seemed little reason to give our stuffed serf a more imaginative name) sits, as low-maintenance as can be, and surveils my kids, from whatever piece of furniture he hauled up on the night before.
With Elfie's help, I reckon my husband and I squeeze about a month of improved conduct from our brood. Come late November, coats and shoes are miraculously placed in closets rather than flung on the floor. And everyone's desperate to help their sibling load the dishwasher, all in full view of our adorable in-house spy.
Adding an Elf on the Shelf to the Yuletide build-up has felt like a very natural upping of the ante. Traditionally, we begin to make Christmas-themed threats in March and they only taper off in late January. We use our kids' fear of losing Santa's offerings right up until the point when they depreciate into a sad heap of warped plastic. And we feel little to no guilt about doing so.
Elf on the Shelf may only be 13, but the way I see it, it's the continuation of a distinguished historical tradition. Mainland European parents have been using Christmas folklore to terrify kids for centuries (see: Krampus), so why not, belatedly, take a delicious slice of the fear pie for ourselves? I can tell you now that if the toy department of big box store ever tries to woo me with a Christmassy half-demon, half-goat and the promise of well-behaved kids, I'll bite. Because as dutiful, caring parents, the first thing we ask in any situation that involves us handing over money for a plaything is: "How will this benefit me?" Too noisy and it clashes with my sofa? No thanks. Terrifying and morally bankrupt but will make my child nice? Yeah, go on then.
The naysayers will tell you that Elf on the Shelf is an evil, commercialized addition to Christmas. But if you're already celebrating a gift-driven holiday where a booming white guy controls the economy and metes out joy, you can't suddenly start objecting when cunning entrepreneurs crank out clever bolt-on items. Before you dismiss Elf of the Shelf as sinister garbage, remember it's also an invaluable — and festive — parenting tool.
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