Elf on the Shelf: Scrupulosity for Unbelieving Tots

Today in Slate, Torie Bosch describes how non-religious parents are using the children’s book Elf on the Shelf to teach their kids terror of supernatural judges. The story, as the title suggests, features an elf who acts as Tsar Santa’s Third Section. The creature “keeps an eye on a family during the day, then flies back to the North Pole at night to give Santa a sitrep.” To hammer home the point for less imaginative audiences, the book comes with a prop: “a stiff doll” shaped like – you guessed it – an elf:

…parents put the elf somewhere in the house to watch over the children, their good deeds and bad. After the kids go to bed, when the elf is supposedly making its long commute back to the North Pole, the parents must move the doll to a new spot—a bookcase, the mantel, or some other cozy nook. Come morning, the kids try to find where the elf has situated itself for the new day. During sibling fights, moments of petulance, and other interludes of misbehavior, parents can point to the elf—whom the children have named—and say, “Do you want Santa to hear about this?” The elf-as-Big Brother effect, I hear, is a bit of Christmas magic for stressed-out moms and dads.

Look, not even smeared with toasted gruyere could I pass for Jean Piaget, but this sounds brilliant. In a recent poll, 86% of Americans claimed to have believed in Santa Claus as children. Psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life, argues that a child’s belief in Santa might not be so literal as, say, an adult’s belief in the legitimacy of democracy, but can be made more literal with a little parental prompting. In the New York Times, she relates how researcher Jacqui Wooley told children stories about a character called the Candy Witch, who gives out candy on Halloween. Initially, half the children declared themselves skeptics; after Wooley left them some candy in the Witch’s name, a larger percentage became true believers. If children really are suckers for authority backed by empirical evidence, a mysteriously moving elf could well put the fear of Santa into them.

Whatever good a staring doll might do a normal kid, it could send a neurotic one into therapy. Trust me, I was that kid. When I was seven, I decided that Skylab would fall right on my head. News of the space station’s imminent plunge came from an unimpeachable source – the guy who read the news on 1010 WINS. In song, Steve Dahl and Teenage Radiation impressed me with the danger it presented: Skylab’s breakin’ into bits/You’d best be hidin’ when it hits/They say it’ll drop to sea/And that it won’t kill you or me…I don’t believe it. Well, Steve, I didn’t believe it, either. For a week in the summer of 1979, I darted from awning to awning, trusting stretched canvas to blunt the impact of hot metal.

But death-by-Skylab took its philosophical justification from my own loving, long-suffering mother and her lecture on the Nazis. One evening, she caught me drawing Crayola pictures of rabbits in coal-scuttle helmets humping Panzerfausten and MP40s – gewgaws I’d seen on Sunday-morning movies. Anxious to bring me up to date on man’s inhumanity to man, and on the precariousness of my own Jewish existence, she compressed the events of 1933-45 into four or five bullet points. Each one struck home with a thwack.

“They’d really have put me in an oven?” I asked tearfully. Solemn nod. “Uh-huh.”

“You, too?” Solemn shake of the head. “Nuh-uh. Just you.”

It was with a sense of belonging the People Chosen by God to Be Roasted that I envisioned myself smashed to pulp inches from the entrance to Friendly’s. On that score, the lecture worked all too well. Where it couldn’t work was in curbing my love affair with Third Reich military hardware. That’s simply part of being a red-blooded American male. To this day, I’d recognize a Panther tank with a V-12 Maybach HL230-P30 engine and an 88-mm main gun if one were strutting up Van Buren in fishnets and calling itself “Biscuit.” Hey, if I had the jack, I’d probably take it to the nearest Best Western.

But my point, finally, is that in the safe building of sane consciences, Christians have real advantages over non-believers. Our God sees all, but He also forgives all. Pointing to, for example, a San Damiano Cross and telling your kids, “If Jesus catches you hitting your sister, he’ll tell Santa to bring you crap toys – unless you repent with a firm purpose of amendment” should cover all bases. If the kid tries to tell you that God died at Auschwitz, well, then it may be time to get out the wooden spoon.

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