Friday, December 17, 2010

Why do I have the feeling I'd be tempted to say: watch this.

With particular thanks to Jen H. and her book group for the inspiration:

You won’t be surprised to hear that I was horrified but also amused to learn the details about some fresh hell called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition or some such nonsense. I don’t know how long this elf has been wreaking havoc in homes around the world but thank God my boys are young adults. I can practically guarantee you we would have been the family that never had an elf on any shelf on our home. Or we would have been the family with the reluctant mommy dragging an elf out of storage every November and regretting every moment she spent rearranging it for a month.

But my own acceptance or rejection of this is an unanswerable notion, really. I may have bought into this “tradition,” given my sentimentality about Christmas. I still may have regretted it but I may have been right there along with other parents who wanted to add to the magic of the season for their children. Let’s just say I’m assuming everyone is adding to the magic, not trying to traumatize their children, which is all too possible according to some of the reviews I’ve read.

Here’s the idea, in case you aren’t already living through this elf / shelf mania. The book tells the story of this helpful little elf that joins your household – your family must give him a name, by the way - to do nothing more than spy on the children who live there for the express purpose of reporting their behavior back to Santa on a nightly basis. He's Santa’s helper, on the job daily, who sees everyone while they’re sleeping, and watches them when they’re awake. Not to put to fine a Christmas point on it: he knows if you’ve been bad or good. But let’s make this distinction: his message isn’t to be good for goodness sake. No, this spy-elf more or less promises good children that Santa will reward them with every gift on their lists. The bad children will be left with nothing, no doubt.

Talk about behavior modification! Every night, the elf returns to the North Pole to make his report, but he’s right back on the job before day breaks, ready for a new round of noticing every move the kids make. The parents help create the illusion of a globe-trotting elf by carefully placing him in a new spot every day, so it’s clear he’s been away filing his report while the children slept. Upon his return, he settles into a new spot in the house, ready to keep his eye on the kids. Some children apparently just love searching for him each morning.

So let’s summarize this from a child’s point of view: a daily recap to Santa on your every move, and a promise of material rewards for good behavior. Charming. What’s not to like about that?

First, I love that kids seem excited about this little guy. It’s adorable. Little children at Christmas are mostly adorable. Second, well…there is no second.

I think it’s kind of risky for parents to invite a fictional Christmas spy – even a sweet little elf spy - into the home to help keep the children in line. Believe me, they’re not doing themselves any favors. In fact, more than a few reviews I’ve read on websites indicate that once Christmas has come and gone, the resolutions about good behavior last about as long as the dead tree no one has watered since December 21.

I’ve heard first-hand stories this mid-December from parents, strongly indicating that they’ve reached just about at the end of their tether when it comes to moving this cockamamie elf to a new location every day. Do you hide him? Leave him in plain view? Make it easy for kids to reach or position the elf in some inaccessible places? (And I think all the elves are boys, by the way. Which is annoying for some reason but I don't have the energy to wage a battle about that just now.)

Tales abound of parents leaping out of a sound sleep at 3 am because they forgot to move the elf before going to bed. [Moment of recognition: I used to slip tooth fairy money under pillows as I woke my kids up in the morning. Yes, we often – perhaps almost always – forgot to place the silver dollar we gave them under their pillows before we went to bed for the night. I’m positive I’d forget about this ridiculous elf at least four times a week.]

I heard the story of one mother who made the mistake of dangling their elf from a lighting fixture and he was slightly singed as a result. Her children were inconsolable. I can only imagine what cover-up story she told them. Maybe he stood too close to the fireplace in the workshop at the North Pole.

I guarantee you had we owned an elf on the shelf, I would have moved him incrementally from day to day. I’m not certain but I don’t think the rules call for him moving from room to room or floor to ceiling. He would have moved from one side of the sofa to the other, or one side of our bookshelf to another all month long.

So where are we with this? I don’t know. It’s kind of cute but kind of odd. It’s indicative of what we’ve become in a way. It’s not enough to tell our children about Santa Claus, with some kind of benign “he’s keeping an eye on you!!” story. In the good old days, elves made toys, they didn’t spy on children. In the words of the chipper little song that accompanies the book on CD,

"Every year at Christmas Santa sends his elves to watch you

And they go back to tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good!

The elf on the shelf is watching you – what you say, what you do…

The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas.

The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas

Dear God. I wonder if the elf on the shelf would watch me not write out the Christmas cards that have been sitting on our coffee table for two weeks. Watch me hop online and order more gifts that I’m positive will arrive promptly on December 28. He could watch as I have yet to bake even one cookie.

I’d love to hear from parents who have invited this little fellow into their Christmas holidays. I am probably entirely wrong about this and it's delightful and I need to lighten up. Maybe kids love it. Maybe parents love the fantasy as well. God bless.

But it’s still a little creepy.


Brian said...

We have one of these!

The whole thing is cute in a weird way; every morning since we got him the kids have gotten up excited to find George (which is what we named him)...and yes, there have been several last-minute dashes to move George before anyone noticed, as well as a couple 3AM wakeups going "George!" and heading downstairs to reposition him before daybreak. We don't play up the spy bit at all, it's too Big Brother, even though that's what George is.

Yes, it's weird and exhausting but it's fun, and bizarre Christmas traditions make for good stories. My father used to go out on Christmas Eve night and make sleigh and reindeer tracks in the front yard. I think I only really looked once, but they were there for years, even when he was working nights and would get home at 3AM, he'd grab whatever it was he used to make the tracks on go out there to carefully poke holes in the snow. Sure, the Elf on the Shelf isn't a tradition we made up...but we've embraced the insanity (and inanity) as our own.

renee said...

Thanks Brian - I love that you seem sane about his and that you dumped the whole spy thing.

But I really, really love the sleigh + hoofprints story. That's a keeper.

Meredith O. said...

I continue to be on the fence about 'the elf on the shelf'. Friends have it and tell me their stories of moving it every day, and how their kids are so aware of their behavior. Motherly instinct coupled with a reflection on how I would have felt as a child...we're not getting it!

renee said...

I suspect I'd feel the same way, Meredith.

I understand the attraction but then again - could be troubling unless you skip all the spy, big brother-ish stuff like Brian.

Thanks for weighing in here!!

Lehigh Valley Transplant said...

My great aunt had a leprechaun/elf doll that would frequently be the scapegoat (Who broke the lamp? Wasn't me/Must have been Leppy), or the bearer of good tidings (not a birthday or wedding occured without Leppy's attendance). When children would arrive at her home, it was a game to discover where Leppy was hiding (frequently in the chandelier or somewhere risky). He was always up to something. When I read about the Elf on a Shelf trend, I wasn't surprised that Leppy had gone and made himself a superstar without our knowing. I think it's a sweet tradition that any family can interpret to their liking using any old doll or stuffed animal.

renee said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I agree: a family tradition, a toy, a fun diversion for kids, a keepsake...all of those things help to create the ties that bind.

The thing I found troubling about this particular toy was the spy / "telling on you" aspect of it. Just too weird for me.

Thanks for joining the discussion here!