Each night while you're sleeping 
to Santa I'll fly
to the North Pole
right through the dark sky.
Of course Christmas magic
helps me to be quick.
I laugh with my friends
and report to Saint Nick. 

A children's Christmas book -- the full title is "The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition." It was written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, illustrated by Coe Steinwart, and self-published in 2005. The book often comes packaged with an elf doll.

It is a thoroughly horrible thing.

So what's the general plot? The book introduces us to an elf whose job is to report to Santa Claus about which kids are naughty and nice. Kids are encouraged to give their elf (i.e., the elf doll) a unique name so he can begin his mission. We learn that after the family goes to bed, the elf flies to the North Pole to tell Santa what he's learned and to enjoy the company of the other elves. 

In the morning, the elf is hidden somewhere inside the home, and the children must locate the elf -- obviously, the elf is actually hidden each morning by the children's parents as part of a seasonal hide-and-seek game. However, the kids are forbidden to touch the elf, or his magic may dissipate. The elf is not allowed to talk to the children, but they may speak to him and tell him what they'd like from Santa Claus. 

This all begins around Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Eve, when the elf must return to the North Pole for the rest of the year. 

Steinwart's artwork is actually quite nice -- festive, well-done watercolors that are soaked in the holiday spirit. They might not be the kind of thing I'd want framed and hung on my wall, but I can't fault the art at all. 

The rest of it just sucks.

The book is written in some of the worst doggerel I've seen in a while. The rhymes aren't much better than you'd get from a nursery rhyme, but the meter seems to be mostly random -- short lines are paired with long lines, and the whole thing is just a colossal chore to read, especially out loud. I get the impression that the entire book was written over the course of one night, maybe two, with as little editing afterwards as possible. 

And really, a lot of what makes it so bad is how weirdly creepy it is. I've heard "The Elf on the Shelf" described as "A Patriot Act Christmas" -- the elf is going to spy on you, find out all your crimes, and report them to Big Brother Claus every night. And don't touch him! "I DON'T LIKE TO BE TOUCHED!" A sensible kid would touch the elf as often as he could, just to deprive the elf of his magic powers, then tie him up in the basement and waterboard him.

But ultimately, there are two things that depress me the most about this book. First is the overwhelming cynicism that went into creating it -- it wasn't just a Christmas story, it was billed as "A Christmas Tradition," with the nearly transparent hope that lots and lots of people would buy the book and doll just for the sake of keeping up with the latest engineered "Christmas tradition."

The second thing that depresses me about it? How successful they've been at it. I know way too many people who've bought the book, teach their kids to buy into its message, hide the doll, etc., etc. It just seems like such a joyless thing to use to commemorate the holiday. Screw peace on earth and goodwill to men -- APPEASE THE RED-CLAD NARC.

The book was made into a TV special in 2011. I have no idea how it was, as I didn't see it. Seems a bit like a marketing ploy to sell more copies of the book -- which, again, seems entirely appropriate for such a shallow, sneering little book.

The Elf on the Shelf is a remix of two Christmas 'traditions'.

In the 1950s Japanese shelf elves, sometimes called 'knee-huggers', were popular Christmas decorations. They are overly sweet-faced and elfin dolls with large eyes and sickeningly sweet smiles (image). These have thankfully fallen out of fashion, but are still familiar to generations of Americans.

And in the early 1960s author Flora Johnson wrote a rather unremarkable book by the name of Christopher Pop-In-Kins Pops In, which would have gone unnoticed if it were not accompanied by a rag-doll elf. Kids loved the idea of an elf visiting during Christmas, and Christopher Pop-In-Kins is still produced today, still a minor tradition nearly 30 years later. Because Christopher Pop-In-Kins was indeed a tradition in many families (and because the doll was not originally of very great quality), a no-touching rule was introduced early on.

The Elf on the Shelf is simply the combination of the Shelf Elf doll with the Christopher Pop-In-Kins concept plus a good dollop of marketing.

I have not read The Elf on the Shelf, and do not find any part of the doll, story, or book in the least bit appealing. HOWEVER, some kids in my school have an Elf on the Shelf running about in their homes, and I have to admit, it sounds like a lot of fun.

There is a bit of a cult on-line consisting of parents thinking up cool things to do with The Elf for (generally) the month proceeding Christmas. The Elves in my neighborhood have:

  • Appeared in odd places (of course), including backpacks, the front stoop, the refrigerator, etc.
  • Been found posed with other toys, including Barbie in her convertible and superheroes engaged in rescuing some hapless toy.
  • Made a mess in the kitchen, making snow (flour) angels or stealing candy.
  • Set up a birthday tableau for a child with a December birthday.
  • Took a picture of himself with a digital camera.
  • Hung up the family's underwear in place of stockings.
  • TP'd the Christmas tree

There have also been reports of elves running away, leaving a note, if children are naughty. They usually come back after a day or so, though .

While the idea that a small, demonically cheerful homunculus is spying on you and reporting back to Santa is less than appealing, the idea that a doll is playing on its own, and moreover, doing things that you can't (but would like to) is pretty cool, and apparently especially so if you are 5-8 years old. I think that it is even cooler for those kids who have an inkling that it is actually their parents who have the mischievous sense of humor, and not the creepy elf doll. I don't really see any way that this tradition benefits from being tied to Christmas... But I am a notorious Scrooge. I certainly think that this is one of those activities that is best undertaken without buying the standard kit.

And if the whole thing is just too sickly sweet for you, you can always use dinosaurs.

It appears that most of the ideas that the parents at my school are using come from this blog. But half the fun must be in thinking up new things for your elf to do on your own.

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