Elf on the Shelf

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The Cultural Impact of Elf on the Shelf

In 2005, Carol Abersold and her daughter Chanda Bell dreamed up a new Christmas tradition. Parents could purchase one of Santa’s elves, a cute little creature sent to "scout" for Santa and report whether the kids in a certain home had been good. The elf would stay with their chosen family from December 1-25, getting up to creative antics while the kids were asleep every night.

The combination elf doll and book were an instant smash hit with their target demographic. In almost 20 years since inception, the original white, blue-eyed male elf has received female counterparts, as well as Black and Latino/a counterparts, male and female. Parents of disabled children have bought or handmade accessories like wheelchairs or braces for their dolls. The Elf on the Shelf has its own theme song and has spawned a made-for-TV movie, as well as a 2023 elf-themed baking competition on Food Network.

However, not everyone wants this elf on their shelf. Every year, parents flock to social media to panic–"It’s almost December 1 and I can’t find the elf/I need an elf!" They commiserate with fellow parents and guardians–"I hate this [darn] elf!" Parents, teachers, and child development experts have excoriated the elf as a "Christmas spy," a tool that encourages extreme behaviorist thinking and doesn’t contribute to concepts of grace, making mistakes and learning from them, or doing well without doing perfectly. In a season where kids are already excited, anxious, and overstimulated, the elf feels like an enemy. Plus, many parents find it "just plain creepy."

Discuss the pros, cons, and cultural impact of the Elf on the Shelf, as well as any alternatives you know (e.g., Kindness Elves, elves who use their time to make the journey to Bethlehem, elves who celebrate Hanukkah or Diwali). Why do you think culture embraced or rejected the Elf on the Shelf? In what capacity if any was it needed? Do alternatives "work," or do we need better alternatives, if any? Will the phenomenon ever leave us? Choose a couple of these or other questions upon which to expound.