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.

  • jkm

    I wish my father could have figured out how to make money on what I am sure was his original idea—moving those “stiff elf dolls,” about 10 of which my mother had acquired for Christmas decorating purposes, probably from the same place she got the revolving ceramic musical Christmas tree—from mantelpiece to bookshelf to chandelier to doorway molding every night while we were sleeping, after he got home around midnight from swing shift at the chemical plant. There was no “as if we were God’s spies” about it, just Dad being goofy. We really thought they moved around at night on their own, just as we thought the Three Kings and their camels and attendants moved ever so slowly, inch by inch, from the Orient of the hope chest in the front hall to the stable atop the Little TV of Bethlehem on the nights between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. When I told that Three Kings story to some confirmands I was mentoring one year, one girl was completely wigged out. She said she couldn’t live in a house where Nativity figures moved on their own like Twilight Zone Talky Tina dolls. So I gave her a Melchior figure with its eyes replaced by sinister red jewels as a joke gift. A couple of weeks ago, her mother asked me what it was I did to her that made her want to only date atheists.

    And I was the Scruples Queen even without spying elves.

    And I am only babbling on like this because I’m trying not to cry about the Boy Who Was Chosen to Be Roasted.

    [For shame. A woman who gives such brilliant gag gifts has no business crying at a time like this.

    I can't remember where I first heard about the Holy Ghost, but I remember associating it with my great-grandmother's hallway, which was hung with pictures of Christ in His agony. Every time I went up their to use her bathroom, I kept expecting something with thorns on its head to jump out and yell, "BOO!"]

  • jkm

    You mean your grandmother had one of those pictures in her hallway, too? Yikes. Ours was a kind of photorealistic Christ crowned with thorns (properly termed an Ecce Homo, but these days that leads down other hallways entirely) matted and framed in exactly the same style as the photographic portrait of my great-grandmother posed against a background of white clouds (I assumed she’d had it snapped in heaven, where she resided). I thought he was just one more relative with a difficult back story. The Holy Ghost was comfortingly Caspar-like to me, but that great-uncle with the thorny hat . . .

    [You say, "Ecce homo"; I said, "Ick!"

    Deepening the mystery was the triptych on her shelf. It featured one picture of my uncle in his Marine Corps dress blues; one of my great-uncle in his U.S. Navy admiral's dress whites; and one of my cousin Sr. Mary Katherine in her nun's habit. In Manhattan's progressive private schools, one simply never saw the like.]

  • Sarah

    Holy bleeping Santa, Max. 274 shares? Who would have thought child-rearing tips would be your niche? ;)

  • Mom

    Dear Max,

    If I had known I was raising a writer, I would have borne a second child as a fact-checker.


  • texas

    I need to find one of the Elves at the store. I keep hearing about them, but don’t really get what they are for/people do with them, except that it is some fun kid’s thing.

    Our 3 wise men “wander” around the house until Christmas eve. :/ They like finding them every day, too.

  • Brooks Gardner

    This ain’t fun kids stuff. It misses any point of teaching the reason for the season. American obsession with Christmas Giving has long passed obsession. Church programs teach acting and sin and not why we play this roles. WE can act and sing in the summer just as well as we do at Christmas.

  • bones

    So let me this straight: Atheists reject any connection between their faith and the horrors of communism, but then employ a red suited Elven commissar to keep their kids in line in the weeks leading up to Christmas? A wittier man than I could do something with this.

  • cathyf

    When my son was about 9 and daughter 5, or maybe it was 8 and 4, they were at ages where he knew there was no Santa and she still believed. So we sat him down and explained the asymmetry of disbelief. To wit: if Santa is real, then being good will get you marvelous gifts, while being bad will get you coal in your stocking. If Santa is fake, then being good will only get you whatever your parents can come up with as gifts, but if you are bad your parents are perfectly able to deliver coal to your stocking.

    And telling your sister that there’s no Santa is certainly bad enough to bring down BOTH Santa’s wrath AND mom & dad’s wrath, and he didn’t want to see either!