The Tyranny of the Elf on the Shelf

The real war on Christmas: Parents vs. The Toy that Won't Quit

If you’re raising kids and you celebrate Christmas, you know all about the Elf on the Shelf.

This little pixie is now a ubiquitous part of the season, and the newest of those Christmas traditions that every magazine with a holiday story is pushing on families.

It joins a long line of traditions, in which family baking, the lights, the tree, and the watching of certain Christmas specials are all part of something that may bring us together for a joyous holiday season.

As a dad, I’m fine with most of these Christmas customs, and I look forward to many of them — the Charlie Brown special and decorating the tree with lights, for instance. I learned baking at my grandmother’s elbow, so I am capable and happy to spend an afternoon making cookies with the kids.

But as a parent, I have a real problem with the Elf on the Shelf. If you don’t know, or don’t celebrate, the “The Elf on the Shelf” is a 2005 self-published book by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. It tells the story of an elf that moves around your house, watches for any naughty (or nice) activities in the home, and reports back to Santa every night, returning to a new vantage point every morning.

Since then, it has exploded onto America’s holiday scene. The Elf on the Shelf won all kinds of best toy awards, has an 2011 so-so animated Christmas special, and earns more than $10 billion in sales.

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We contributed some $30 to those sales, and we now have an elf. His name is Elron. I hate him. If that sounds strong, let me tell you why.

First, let’s dispense with the marketing ploy suggesting the elf is a “traditional” part of anything: It’s only been around for 10 years. But beyond that, one of the reasons I’m not a fan is that it requires a level of commitment from parents that, honestly, some days we don’t have.

With everything else that comes around this season, moving the elf every night or every morning is not high on my to-do list. But kids notice, which gives my wife and me guilt because we’re destroying the “magic of Christmas” by not buying into the hype.

Many other adults feel the same way: “I hate that little guy. He gives me the creeps,” said one.

Another parent told me their family is holding off as long as they can. “I barely have time to sleep as it is. I really don’t want something else to add to the To Do List.”

Related: Gift Alternatives for Kids: 10 Cool Ideas

Another parent has an elf but manages to stay away from the hype: “Our elf is pretty zen,” she writes, “and doesn’t get into a lot of trouble.”

I know what you’re saying: If you hate it so much, just don’t do it!


When every kid in the city has an elf and your kids don’t, you’re going to hear about it. In our home, when the elf didn’t show up the day after Thanksgiving, our kids began asking their friends’ elves why he wasn’t coming to our house. So up he went.

I don’t like being bullied, especially by a ridiculous marketing tool.

Another element of the elf bothers me. In the era of NSA spying and constant online presence, the elf can be seen as a way to introduce children to Big Brother.

Dr. Elizabeth Pinto, a professor of digital technology at the University of Ontario Institute Of Technology, mused on the topic in a paper she wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In it, she gave a scholarly shine to what many parents say is a child-friendly introduction to a police state. She was quoted in the Washington Post (without taking herself too seriously) as saying the elf “normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.”

Yikes! That darn elf is teaching our kids to be “good little comrades,” or as another parent says: “The Elf on the Shelf is the way I’m preparing my children for their adulthood living in a police state, where their every action is monitored and reported to a central authority.”

There you have it: If you’re a parent and you celebrate Christmas: “You will buy an elf and you will display it prominently, and you will move it to new and unusual locations every night. Or else!”

But the thing that really gets me? It’s one more thing you have to buy, another Martha Stewart-esque addition to an already overwrought time of year that, if we’re not careful, gets farther and farther away from hope and renewal.

Tomorrow we’ll hear another parent’s perspective on the elf. 

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