The authors of the book behind the concept will tell you that it all came from a family tradition started by Carol Aebersold for her twin daughters, Chanda and Christa, when the girls were growing up in Georgia in the 1970s. Since the family first self-published the Christmas-themed book in 2005, however, The Elf on the Shelf has been widely embraced by literally millions around the world. For it offers an explanation for the age-old existential question of how Santa Claus actually knows who is naughty and who is nice.
Simply put, it suggests, Santa has “scout elves” hidden in people’s homes who not only see everything we do but who fly back to the North Pole after everyone has gone to bed each night to report into Santa all the activities, both good and bad. Santa then is able to update his list, (running the data twice, no doubt) before the elf flies back and hides in a new place for the next day’s surveillance.
What’s more, although children can speak to the elf and tell it all of their Christmas wishes to get a more direct pipeline to Santa, they are warned never to actually touch the elf lest its magic disappear. With parents thus willing to pay twenty-nine dollars for a keepsake box to teach their children that it’s okay for others to spy on you, the Elf on the Shelf has become a multi-million-dollar business over the past several years.
As cute as it may be, however, and as hard as some parents may work to deliberately re-hide the elf each evening, there’s something indeed a little off about the whole concept. For aside from the privacy issues it raises, it reinforces the idea that at Christmas we should all get simply what we deserve in life—toys (or a new Lexus) if we’ve been good, socks or lumps of coal (or a used Pinto) if not.
And that would seem to be just about the opposite message of what the Christian faith is about, at least according to the Bible. For it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us, demonstrating God’s own love for you and me. In fact, God so loved the world, so John rather famously wrote, that He gave His only Son so that any who believe in Him—even if they have been naughty and not so nice—might have everlasting life. In short, it’s all about grace, not receiving our just desserts in life.
Of course, the elf is far from being the only Christmas tradition that goes against the actual meaning of this season. And I get that it’s meant to just be a bit of fun, something everybody could use about now. It was not too many years after the elf first appeared, in fact, that a stuffed toy looking a bit like a rabbi or Hassidic Jew showed up on store shelves as well. And before long, the Mensch on a Bench (a Yiddish term meaning a “person of honor or integrity”) became the team mascot for the Israeli national baseball team.
But I’m grateful still that while God does indeed see me while I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, He doesn’t need a surveillance elf to keep tabs on me and report back. For His watchful eye is meant to protect more than detect, and His magic will never disappear.
Just in case you’re looking for a good investment opportunity, however, I do have a good idea for a “Preacher on a Bleacher.”