Is Elf on the Shelf the worst thing to happen to Christmas?
In the running for this year's mass-marketing cash cow blue ribbon is Elf on the Shelf — a doll that parents place strategically throughout the house to spy on kids in the weeks before Christmas. Some love it; some hate it.
Every night, children are told, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report on their behavior to the big guy in the bright-red suit. In the morning, the elf appears in a new location — conclusive proof that he has in fact left and returned.
The doll is not a toy. If children touch the elf, it is drained of its magic. And without that magic, how will Santa know which list — "Naughty" or "Nice" — to add your name to?
A cute little book that comes bundled with the doll explains all of this.
He has his own prime-time TV special. He was immortalized as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It's giving parents a new spin on old debates about parenting styles.
Some see it as a fun way to get kids to think about their behavior, another simple activity to keep them excited about the holiday — like searching for an Easter egg every morning.
Others say it teaches kids to think of morality as a transaction: Good behavior equals Christmas presents. It reduces lessons about good will and the Christmas spirit to a wish list of toys. It further secularizes a religious observance. It shames kids by making them helpless against magical espionage. It burdens parents with one more thing to do every night after packing the kids off to bed. It's a fake tradition, cheap and commercial.
Whichever side you might fall on, I wonder if the Elf is just unnecessary. And the backlash against him (or her: you can buy a skirt separately) feels old. All those arguments have been made against Santa Claus for years. It's just that this elf camps out in your house for a month.
Santa just sort of magically knowing whether I was naughty or nice was good enough to keep me in line — mostly. As my parents reminded me, he kept tabs all year long, not just when we had lights hanging from our gutters.
Never mind Santa — what about my parents? I knew very well that if Santa missed something, Mom and Dad would fill in the gaps.
And as if that weren't enough, I have hair-raising memories of a bust of Jesus my Catholic mother kept in her living room. I swear he watched me, like a spooky portrait in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. I could feel those cold, stony eyes sending an electric chill down my back as I sped out of the room, quickening my pace with every other step in order to stay ahead of his gaze. (My active imagination might have been influenced by Rolf's talking bust of Mozart on The Muppet Show.)
Myself, I didn't need an elf. I had enough spies.
Whether you believe in a magical doll, an omniscient St. Nick, or Jesus — or whether the fear of your parents is enough for you — kids need something to motivate them to behave. Parents make tough choices one after another, year after year, through the long journey of child rearing. Even for the best parents, it comes down to going with what works. Whether Elf on a Shelf is over-commercial and ugly or not, is it any worse than the alternatives?