Make It Holiday!
Can We Please Stop With Elf on the Shelf?
How did we get here–Googling Elf on the Shelf ideas at the strike of midnight for twenty-four merry nights? There are tiny props and kits and probably spreadsheets. Carla Ciccone reexamines the surveillance state phenomenon we've welcomed into our holiday homes and proposes how you can make it all go away with one last lie.
- Written By
- Carla Ciccone
- Lucia Vinti
If there’s one thing I know about Elves of the Christmas variety, it’s that they work in Santa’s workshop building toys. Of course, there are exceptions: Hermey from the Rudolph movie who wants to be a dentist, and Buddy from Elf, who is actually human. These are two extraordinary elves and we wish them the liberty to pursue their career dreams. The Elf on the Shelf, however, has chosen to be a snitch.
Bringing a surveillance doll into the house to observe a family’s behavior and report it all back to an old man sounds like something that happened during the Cold War, and not an activity that parents in 2021 should be expected to participate in. Despite my opinions, the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon thrives. It started when the book “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition” was self published by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell in 2005. It centers around a story Carol made up about watchful Santa’s “scout” elves who camp out in people’s homes during the day and fly back to the North Pole nightly with their intel. The threat of the Elf reporting bad behavior to Santa and knocking a child from the nice to the naughty list was used to keep her kids in line at Christmastime, and this Big Brother State is the overall message of the book. The Elf returns every morning, and conveniently hides himself in a different spot, so the kids get a little game of hide-and-seek when they wake up and parents get to spend their evenings remembering to move that damn doll somewhere. The book plus Elf toy combo hit the marketing jackpot, in part, as advertised on the book cover, because it encourages families to: “adopt a new family tradition this holiday season.”
The thing is: Christmas has enough traditions. No one asked for more. During one of the most stressful times of the year, do we really need the added pressure?? Family traditions can be fun, and they can be overwhelming. Usually, they are both. One of mine is frantically wrapping Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, running out of wrapping paper, and cursing myself for not planning better. Other families might sing carols or roast marshmallows around the fireplace. These things are fine. Do what you want! But I maintain that too many families have turned monitoring their children with Elfin spies into a yearly must. The Santa Claus story is already full of lies, why add espionage to the mix? If a small toy who looks like a young James Marsden’s voodoo doll comes into my home and says, "I watch and report on all that you do!" I will tell them to kindly get the hell out.
Another reason the Elf on the Shelf is problematic is that it comes with its fair share of unpaid parental, and usually maternal, labor. Because these elves don’t just sit on shelves. Social media has morphed the Elf Shelf phenomenon into the performative parental Olympics. People who clearly, desperately missed doing dioramas in elementary school willingly commit themselves to the task of thinking up and carrying out daily vignettes involving their elves making mischief in and around their homes. I admit, these are fun. Two Elves pair skating on the little patch of ice on your deck? Brilliant. Elves falling to a bag of flour while baking Christmas cookies in your kitchen? Goddamn adorable. If making over-the-top Elf art brings you and your family joy, by all means, please continue to do it—the world needs your creativity and commitment. And there IS something magical about children believing in all that whimsy and waking up excited about it during the lead-up to Christmas. I just don’t want people forcing themselves to produce Elf content if they’d rather be drinking eggnog and binging Emily in Paris. Like most ev erything aimed at parents via other parents on social media, these show-off elves, no matter how adorable, can stir up as much parental guilt as a momfluen cer displaying only the perfect aspects and angles of life and selling it to us as reality.
Am I not doing enough as a parent because I refuse to put an Elf on my shelf, let alone write and direct said Elf in a daily made-for-Instagram photoshoot? (Once again, love the photoshoots, please keep doing them so I don’t have to). If I don't do this, will my kid find out about the Elf when she's a little older and ask why I never indulged her in the tradition?
I’m not anti-Elf, but I am very tired. After we’ve collectively been through a global pandemic that helped spotlight the dire repercussions of massive societal inequities, it seems especially misleading to teach small children that they are either naughty or nice. Why not both? Parents are more than simply good or bad, nice or naughty, and so are the little humans in our charge.
If you’ve been doing the Elf thing for a while and want to stop but don’t know how at this point, maybe just tell your kids the Elf had a change of heart. He’s been inspired by all the homes he’s seen and is going back to school for interior design. We wish him luck on his journey and can’t wait to watch his HGTV holiday home makeover show one day.
Carla Ciccone is a writer and mom from Toronto. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, bon appétit, and The Cut