Imagine chewing on some freshly broken glass, then chasing it with a pint of nail polish remover, while the Chipmunks play at 11 in the background: that’s the psychic equivalent of reading Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, whose introduction manages to be both ominous and shrill.
“At holiday time, Santa sends me to you.
I watch and report on all that you do.
My job’s an assignment from Santa himself.
I am his helper, a friendly scout elf.”
For the uninitiated, the book—which is a relatively short 28 pages, but feels like 1,245—tells the tale of the scout elves who hide in our households during the daytime and fly to the North Pole with a full report every night. The Elf is a new-ish tradition, created in 2004 by a mother-daughter team who wrote the book over a cup of tea. Since then, Elf on the Shelf has sold over six million copies and become a seasonal guest in as many homes: it now comes with a slew of accessories and DVDs, as well as an app, a birthday version, and surely many more spinoffs to come.
As a toy, the Elf on the Shelf is benign enough. It’s a skinny-ass doll, about a foot long, with a big-eyed pixie face, a plastic head, and a felt body, on sale at your local big box store for $29.95. (The Elf comes in a boy and a girl version, both almost identically androgynous—but you can give it even more of a gender, it seems, by purchasing a $9.95 skirt).
As an idea, however, the Elf on the Shelf is a surveillance state nightmare. Santa’s No. 1 rat fink begins its reign of terror at the end of November or beginning of December each year. It can snitch to Santa if children have taken scissors to the drapes or some other act of childish malfeasance. There are certain rules regarding engagement: You must name the elf (my daughter named it “The Elf.”). You must never touch the elf, but you can talk to the elf. You must realize that every move is being watched, as if your home is a reality show. If you lose the game by touching the elf or behaving badly, your punishment ranges from shitty presents like oranges, to no presents, to burning in the fiery pit of hell.
I hadn’t heard of the Elf until two years ago, when my daughter Grace, now four, was gifted the Elf and the book by her grandparents on her dad’s side. I love them dearly; they are always so generous and thoughtful with their gifts. What they likely didn’t realize, in this instance, was that giving someone the elf is akin to giving someone a puppy. There’s upkeep to consider.
But at first, we thought the elf would be fun. Her dad and I are divorced, so we each instated an elf at our respective homes (mine is the dark-skinned version and his more Nordic, a small difference that we have not had to explain away by any statements about diversity or elf magic). I moved the elf around dutifully, and wrote cute little notes: “Hey Gracie! Remember to do a great job listening to your mom today! See you later! Love, Elf. PS Please leave me some cookies.”
I felt a little bad using the elf for behavior-modification that would ultimately benefit me, but I thought it couldn’t do much harm: after all, how much different was it than propaganda for Santa, who can see you when you’re sleeping and awake and all that? Then, after a while, the elf would “forget” to write and “forget” to move about the room to innovative new stalking sites. I started to resent it, the upkeep, and also the implication for an already materially burdensome holiday—that if my daughter was good, she’d get proportionately more presents.
But anyway, the first year, Grace didn’t quite catch on to the concept of in-home CCTV, and probably just thought, “Oh, look, that elf was hanging on the curtain rod yesterday, and now it’s on the TV. Pass me some string cheese.” With low stakes, it was easy enough to at least try and play along. I knew her dad was into it, and I thought that Grace was having fun: she seemed, whenever she talked about the elf, to believe that it was truly otherworldly.
Then, something started to change. Grace is normally a brave, confident kid. She’ll zip down the sidewalk at full speed on her scooter, trying all kinds of complicated poses with her free leg. She’ll go up and talk to anyone (recent openers to complete strangers include: “Don’t forget, my birthday is June 7!” “My mom and dad don’t live together!” and my favorite, at a road trip rest stop, “My mom is gassy today!”) Last year, I noticed that she had gotten a little nervous about the elf, and always wanted me to go into the living room first in the morning to see where it had moved overnight. Not only did she know she couldn’t touch it, but she gave it a wide berth. She was relieved that it left on Christmas night.
This year, Grace’s behavior around the elf started to verge on actual panic attack. It started early: her dad got right all up in the elf business the first week of December, so I had to play along.
At my house, on day two, she saw the elf in a little chair in the corner, surrounded by a string of Hello Kitty Christmas lights with a chirpy note suggesting she “add a little holiday cheer to this place.” Grace retreated, scrambled up my body like a monkey climbs a banana tree, and flung her little arms around my neck. She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in my shoulder.
“Cover my eyes! Cover my eyes!” she screamed.
The elf, as if haunted, slipped down behind the chair to the floor. I got tongs from the kitchen to pick it up, but Grace wouldn’t let me go near it, nor would she let go of my neck. She was petrified, and started to do something in between crying and hyperventilating.
I felt for her. This is the decade of the NSA and Edward Snowden, of social media and all-knowing data: we can all understand the unease that comes with a lack of privacy, the sensation that you’re always being watched, in some way, by someone. A tiny toy ratting to Santa is a different caliber of intrusion, but Grace was onto the truth: everyone wants to keep parts of their lives to themselves, especially in their own home. Even if you’re only four years old.
“Grace, do you want me to tell you the truth about the elf?” I asked, snuggling her in my lap on the couch.
She nodded, sniffling.
“The elf is a just a toy. It’s not magic. It can’t see you. The only way it moves around is because I move it when you’re asleep. Daddy has one too and does the same thing at his house so it looks like the elf follows you.”
She looked up at me with big serious eyes. “So you lied to me.”
I tried to frame it like we were playing a game—that it wasn’t really a lie. But then, I said, “I guess so. It was kind of a lie. We thought you were having fun with the elf but I see you’re not, so I wanted you to know the truth.”
I texted her dad to let him know that the gig was up. His was disappointed, but then doubled down to attempt Olympic-level buzzkilling. “I guess I’ll tell her about Santa Claus then,” he wrote. (I asked him not to. She was still having fun with the idea of Santa. She loved him. She was terrified of the elf. That was the difference.)
The next day, Grace asked if she could hold the elf. And not only that, but she “cooked” it breakfast cupcakes made from small plastic hotdogs and wooden beads (maybe the elf went Paleo) from her toy pantry housed in our kitchen cupboard. She played with it like any other doll, and found it a spot in the bed to sleep next to her. The elf was even included in the holiday photo we’d taken with friends at the zoo. She’d fallen in love with it, now that it was just a doll, and not some creepy talisman.
Even though I’ve been radically honest with her for her entire little life—sometimes to the point of my own discomfort—I wondered about the other things that I do that I say are for the sake of her fun, but really aren’t. The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are up for grabs, as is Jesus, whom I’ve described to her as “a teacher who wants us to be kind to each other.” I’m not a member of any organized religion, but she attends an Episcopalian preschool and I don’t want to directly counter what she hears there, just offer another perspective. When it comes to the discussion about what happens after we die, I’ve told her what different people believe: Some believe your soul comes back inside another baby; others believe you go to heaven; some think that you just disintegrate into the ground and that’s it. Currently, we’re both all about the reincarnation angle.
I may escape the wrath of God, but apparently, Santa’s not going to be very happy with me. “You shouldn’t have lied about the elf,” Grace told me recently, putting it to bed next to a baby doll. “Now he won’t bring you any presents.”
We whistleblowers don’t always win, but at least we can sleep unburdened.
Vanessa McGrady is a writer based in Los Angeles. She hopes you are not scared or burdened by false idols with fake powers this holiday season. Come hang out with her on Twitter, @VanessaMcGrady and visit her blog.
Illustration by Bobby Finger, source image via Elf on the Shelf