Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
If you haven’t yet heard of The Elf on the Shelf, look out. Quite likely there is a small, plush elf surveying your every move and reporting it back to the big guy at the North Pole. That’s the basic premise behind the product, which sells online for $29.95 for the story and accompanying elf. Children are instructed to name their elves, thus activating the elfish magical powers that enable the little sprite to report back to Santa each night on the children’s behavior. Parents are encouraged to perpetuate this tradition and move the elf to a new location before the children wake up each morning. I can understand the origins of this product—children wondering how Santa constructs his naughty/nice list and manages his worldwide Panopticon-style surveillance. I also see the appeal of the hide-and-seek aspect of the elf; we’d do the same thing with our cats each morning, but, honestly, they don’t move that much.
I happen to find the elf’s appearance creepy rather than cute, but when it comes to holiday kitsch, I realize aesthetics often fly out the window for many of us. My biggest question regarding the elf is the purpose. It seems possible to enjoy the story and the doll without taking either’s implications too far, but that’s not the intention suggested by the manufacturers. I’ve often wondered what families who use “Santa is watching” during the month of December do for discipline the other eleven months of the year. The language of the website is positive, emphasizing the “catch ‘em being good” philosophy:
Excellent listeners and even better observers, these scout elves are the eyes and ears of Santa Claus. Although they cannot be touched, or else they may lose their magic, the elf will always listen and relay messages back to Santa. Taking in all the day-to-day activities around the house, no good deed goes unnoticed; these scout elves take their job seriously.
The underlying implication remains though, that these elves report the naughty just as assiduously as the nice, and that the elf is always watching to keep kids in check. And, based on the Amazon.com reviews, that’s precisely how many parents use it.
It reminds me of the same way that so many people view God, always watching, keeping score, perpetually enforcing penalties. What gets lost in that view is that God sets limits for our own good, not because He requires our good behavior; holiness is its own reward, and God wants us to obey Him out of love, not fear of punishment. That doesn’t mean that punishments and consequences aren’t real, but I always get the impression that our sin saddens God because (as even we flawed earthly parents understand), parents hate to watch their children suffer and sin leads to eventual and sometimes eternal suffering. At Christmas, we celebrate God coming to live and suffer with us to be reminded on Resurrection Sunday that He already did everything to protect us from our own sinful selves. That’s the powerful corollary message of Christmas—the babe born in the manger grows up to die on the cross. So keep your elf on the shelf, if you like. Move it around each day and enjoy the family fun it can inspire. But remember too how far beyond naughty and nice Christmas ought to take all of us, how the Christ child—perfect and pure and holy—took on human flesh, not to be “Big Brother” but to be the Messiah.