The Elf on the Shelf: A Cautionary Tale

This is him.  Look at those remorseless, beady little eyes.

This is him. Look at those remorseless, beady little eyes.

For those of you not familiar with The Elf on the Shelf, it is a book that seeks to explain to children how Santa knows if they are naughty or nice each day.  They are watched by their very own elf (spy), who flies back to the North Pole each night to give Santa the report of the day.  Each book comes with a creepy little elf that the child is supposed to name and trust; meanwhile, the elf has spent the day spying on the child and watching their every move from whatever creepy perch he was placed in during the night, by the well-meaning parent, for the purpose of collecting information he can use to tattle on them to his boss, Santa Claus.

I blame Facebook.

For many years I dreamed of being a mother. Infertility allowed me way too much time to think about all the things I would do to expose my kid to the magic of childhood if I ever got the chance, and many of those ideas centered around Christmas.  You know, Santa Claus, visits to Winter Wonderlands, tree lighting ceremonies, our home decked out Griswold style!  Childhood seems so short these days, and I wanted then what I want now; to make Christmas magical for my son, which, consequently, make Christmas magical for the hubs and I.  Like most parents, we delight in seeing the joy he feels from new experiences.  Decorating the tree this year, little man took charge and hung every decoration.  He chose each spot carefully.  Ornament placement mattered, as did color grouping.  It took about an hour and a half for him to complete the job, with Dada assisting as needed, and Mama on the camera documenting every moment with tears of joy in my eyes.  It was one of those perfect moments that happens oh so rarely in day to day life, but when it does it makes up for all the, ahem, less than perfect moments.  Also, our tree is only decorated on one side, and only decorated 18′ high, but it is totally worth it.

Giving credit where credit is due: The women who came up with this product and decided to market it are geniuses. They have sold millions of these things.  I tip my hat to their business savvy, although I question what the hell they were thinking creatively when they conceived this idea.

This stupid elf is all over Facebook every year right after Thanksgiving and right on through to Christmas. As I waited patiently, year after year, to become a mother, I lived vicariously through those that documented their sneaky placement each night of their own personal family elf.  In the morning, more pictures were posted to reveal the delight on the faces of their children as they found their Elf and saw all the mischief he had created.  The Elf had been playing in the flour canister? That silly Elf!  He turned the magnetic letters on the refrigerator upside down?  Oh, the shenanigans!

Basically, the elf is a snitch.  No one likes a snitch.

Basically, the elf is a snitch. No one likes a snitch.

Yes, it’s true.  I coveted this retched elf and vowed to make him mine as soon as I had a kid to enjoy it.  Fast forward a few years, and in December of 2013, my son was two years old. I eagerly broke out the complete Elf on the Shelf kit which included a lovely hard copy book, a registration card so you could name and register your elf with Santa in the North Pole, and one creepy little red felt elf body with a weird, spooky porcelain head that turned 360 degrees a la The Exorcist for reasons blessedly unknown to me.  For the privilege of owning this elf package I paid 29.99, and I paid it gladly.  You can’t put a price on Christmas spirit!  Think of the joy it would bring my son!  Just imagine the laughter and the giggles first thing in the morning when he raced out of his room to search for his elf and see what mayhem that silly fellow had been up to during the night!

No.  This was not the way things went down.  My son, age two, made it clear that this book and this elf bored him.  He already had this really excellent and condescending look mastered at 24 months and he shared it with me whenever I mentioned the elf.  Not wanting to force something upon him  that would surely provide him with many delightful childhood memories later on, I accepted the elf was a no-go for Christmas 2013 and gently put him away to try again the following year.  I picture the elf, biding his time at the very bottom of the plastic Christmas tote.  A full 365 days passed where he had plenty of time to dwell upon the grievous insult he had been subjected to…put back in the box.  Shoved in the attic during Christmas time.  A slight no self-respecting elf could tolerate.

Christmastime 2014: Since decorating the tree was such a big hit, I decided to introduce what I now consider to be demon-spawn masquerading as one of Santa’s helpers.  Shortly after the tearfully joyful Christmas tree decorating experience on Sunday last, my husband and I sat down with Little Man to read the book and introduce E to his elf, his buddy for the next month.  Surely at three years of age, he was ready to embrace the Christmasy goodness that is the Elf on the Shelf!  I began to read aloud, and by page two my husband gave me a sharp elbow nudge and whispered in my ear, “Didn’t we decide this whole thing was creepy as hell last year?  I think this is a bad idea.”

We have a theory that Santa is running an elf child-labor sweatshop and that the elves are not allowed to speak for their own safety.

We have a theory that Santa is running an elf child-labor sweatshop and that the elves are not allowed to speak for their own safety.

“Nonsense!” I declared.  The mothers and children of Facebook relish each morning with their elf!  Why should our family be any different?  The story would go on!  My husband rolled his eyes but participated warily.  My son was much more interested in picking out the different types of food and toys from the pictures in the book than trying to spot the elf.  He seemed to understand something about the elf I refused to see-he wasn’t fun, he was frightening and eerie. His head turned all the way around on his body.  His cheap floppy little legs didn’t support his weight, and his hands were stitched on to his junk for some reason.  To look at him, one didn’t see wonder and Christmas cheer. E certainly did not.

As I read, my husband was not-so-secretly agape with disbelief with the undeniably creepy nature of what I was reading.  I was agape with the undeniably creepy nature of what I was reading.  For some reason, I soldiered on; after all, thousands of moms and dads on Facebook couldn’t be wrong!  And that is my defense in this whole muddled case of questionable parenting: Facebook made me do it.

That night, as I tucked E into bed, we shared our nightly ritual: I lay down in bed with him to cuddle, sing a couple songs, and say our prayers.  It’s a sweet routine that I cherish because nothing lasts forever.  I noticed he seemed rather subdued and did not seem to be experiencing the same silly fun he generally has during “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”  Sensing something was wrong, I wrapped my arms around him and waited.  Finally, he began to speak.  “Mama, he no come in here.  He no come in here, though.  Okay?”

Oh, s*#t.  I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He had been paying attention to the book after all.  My selfish mama heart sank.  I had force-fed tainted Christmas cheer to my boy, the light of my life, and now he was afraid the stupid elf was going to enter his room while he slept and….well, who knows where his imagination would take him regarding that thing?  I should have known better.  I slept on my brother’s top bunk for years after being forced to watch The Incredible Hulk as a small child.  I was positive The Hulk lived in my closet, and that if I slept alone in my room he was going to burst out and pulverize me just like he did to the people on television.

Oh goodie!  A toy I'm not allowed to touch!  That is my very favorite characteristic in a toy.

Oh goodie! A toy I’m not allowed to touch! That is my very favorite characteristic in a toy.

“No, buddy,” I assured him.  “Not at all.  In fact, he has to stay in the living room.  It’s one of the rules.  He won’t be bothering you.”  As I tried to convince my little boy there was nothing to fear, my mind began to race.  What kind of witchcraft had this elf worked in the short time he was out of his box?  Was he made in a factory that was built on an old Indian burial ground?

“You sleep on couch, Mama.  You sleep on couch tonight, right there.  He no come in here.” The worst part was, the normally silly, sparkling eyes of my little boy were filled with tears that hadn’t spilled out yet.  He was trying to be brave, but his precious little bottom lip was quivering and I recognized the look: fear melded with panic.  If you are a parent who has ever, via good intentions, caused your child to experience this, you probably know what that horrible knot-twisting in the bottom of your stomach feels like.  It’s a bitter cocktail of guilt and failure.

Naturally, I lied to my son and told him I would sleep on the couch (we have a perfectly good baby monitor right next to our comfy bed, thank you very much) and reminded him all he had to do was ask for me, and I would hear him, and I would come.

I wish I could say that is where the madness ended, but sadly I cannot.  The persuasive powers of the Elf were too great, and I’m beginning to think he bewitched me.  Here’s why: inexplicably, the hubs and I decided to place this jackass elf on the lamp, so that when E woke up in the morning, he would spot him and realize the it was merely a toy, a game!   Nothing to be scared of, not really. It’s too bad that E’s parents are slow learners.  E didn’t say anything about the elf all day, but he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder.  I sort of figured he was just being shy, and would warm up to him eventually. I mean, this was THE ELF ON THE SHELF!  Kids loved waking up to find him in the morning to see what kind of trouble he had gotten himself into after returning from his visit to the North Pole.  I knew this to be an indisputable fact, because every elf picture I ever saw on Facebook proved it to be true.  I felt reasonably confident that the parents of Facebook would present an unbiased and impartial pictorial glimpse into their child’s elf experience.  E just needed a little bit of time to warm up and decide how he really felt about his elf.

I should have known better.  He had decided how he felt about things.  I just chose to overlook them because I was hellbent on believing that this elf was the Yellow Brick Road to Christmas Magic.  And more than anything, I wanted Christmas to be magical for E, the way it was for my brother and I as a kid.  Learn from my mistakes, fellow parents!  If your kid is freaked out, even slightly, by The Elf on the Shelf (and honestly, I think that is a completely healthy and normal reaction), honor their feelings and stuff said elf back in the attic.  Don’t give it “one more day.”  I’m pretty sure “one more day” of elf time equals a whole extra month of therapy in adulthood.

Don't worry about me little boy.  I'm just going to cling to this lamp all day and watch your every move.  All of them.

Don’t worry about me little boy. I’m just going to cling to this lamp all day and watch your every move. ALL of them.

For the rest of the day, E never mentioned the elf on the lamp.  He seemed unbothered by it, except for the whole “looking over the shoulder” thing.  But then, the nighttime.  That night, after once again cuddling and tucking in my little guy, he suddenly clung to me and wouldn’t let go.  He burst into tears and begged me to sleep in his bed.  I let him cry, and as I stroked his head I let the weight of what I had done wash over me. I could not believe I allowed this to happen two nights in a row.  Actually, I CAUSED it to happen!  In that moment I would have done anything to erase any knowledge he had of this freakish little doll that was haunting his imagination.  Finally, I quietly asked him, “Hey buddy, is this about the elf?  Does he bother you?  Would you like him to leave?”

E nodded vigorously.  “I no like elf.  No like him.  You sleep here in train bed and dada sleep on couch.  Elf no come in here.”

Oh, the weight of knowing you are the cause of your child’s nightmares!  All because I wanted to make Christmas magical.  Facebook had steered me wrong.  I purposefully marched into the living room to get the hubs, to tell him that bastardly Christmas-ruining elf had to go.  Not only that, we had to make a realistic ceremony of his permanent banishment.  The two of us then went back into E’s room, Dada making a big show of restraining the elf.  We sat on E’s bed together and explained that the elf had shared with us that he couldn’t stay; he had important business he had to attend to in the North Pole.  He was awfully sorry, but he was leaving and we would not be seeing him, or any other elves, at our house again.  He wanted to wish E a Merry Christmas before he left.  And then, as quickly as he had arrived, he was gone.  By gone, I of course mean that he was unceremoniously stuffed into the bottom of a Christmas tote in the garage, his next destination being either Goodwill, or my next yard sale.

That was last night.  This evening as I cuddled my boy, he asked me again to sleep on the couch.  I asked him why it was important to him that I sleep there.  E responded, “So he no come in here.”  I gently reminded him that “he” was gone so there was no reason to think about that anymore.  “Oh,” said E.  “You sleep in big bed then.”  Thanks son.  I will sleep in the big bed.  And I hope to God in heaven that you will forget this whole experience and not require lifelong therapy to purge your psyche of your deeply rooted belief that you are being watched by a cheap little elf with his hands sewn to his crotch. Who signed off on this idea, anyway?

*If this blog saved even one parent from unintentionally terrorizing their child this season, it will have been worth it.  Please feel free to share or pass along.

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