Elf on the shelf or eye in the sky?


Megan McManus

The festive season is now well and truly underway, and as Christmas fast approaches, so too do tides of both traditionalism and commercialism. Where, however, does the increasingly popular Elf on the Shelf fit into this? If you haven’t come across Elf on the Shelf, it is a Christmas tradition favoured by families with young children, in which a toy elf is hidden around the house in the run up to Christmas.  Its origins lie in a children’s picture book, written by American author Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. The book tells of how Santa’s “scout elves” hide in the homes of children, with the aim of discovering who’s naughty and who’s nice, before reporting back to Santa. The elves also mischievously hide in a new spot in the house every day. Each book includes a scout elf doll, and so the tradition was born. 

So, is Elf on the Shelf something to be praised? Many of its supporters see it as a fun new tradition, encouraging children to engage in reading, family time and the Christmas spirit. There is certainly an argument for its merit in instigating a reinvigoration of Christmas tradition, updating an ancient celebration for a modern audience. The inescapable presence of it on social media throughout December is certainly a testament to this, as families take to the likes of Facebook and Instagram to share the latest antics of their mischievous elves. 

Its critics, however, warn of the damaging effect it can have upon children. Crucially, in the original book there is a rule that the children are not allowed to touch or move the elves. This is explicitly stated, with the rule reading “There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.” Children may speak to the elves and ask for their Christmas wishes to be relayed to Santa, however this is the extent of the allowed interaction. Some have warned of the dangerous effect that this can have in training children to accept invasions of privacy and what is essentially spying. 

This discourse has been particularly prevalent in America, where concerns about the initiating of children into acceptance and glorifying of a nanny state has been raised. Hank Stuever, a reviewer for the Washington Post, comments that Elf on the Shelf acts as “just another nanny cam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes”. Such critics also raise the point of the capitalist nature of society in America in conjunction with this. In this light, Elf on the Shelf takes on a more serious role, as some hail it as a proponent of capitalist supremacy and as a player in the initiation of children into capitalist ideals far more so than the Christmas spirit. Kate Tuttle, a writer for The Atlantic, goes as far as to comment that Elf on the Shelf is “a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition”. 

This is certainly a view shared by many, and when the marketing statistics are considered, it must be said that this viewpoint does hold some merit. Elf on the Shelf reached first place on the USA Today Bestsellers list in 2013. In the same year, a birthday version of Elf on the Shelf was released, bringing in yet more revenue. As well as this, two additional supplemental birthday products were created and marketed in the following year. In this light, Elf on the Shelf takes on a role much more akin to that of an economic commodity than that of an innocent Christmas tradition. The economic growth and success of Elf on the Shelf continues to this day. On the official website, under the “New for 2019” section of the shop, there are reams of new products, including a new “Elf Pets” subsection to the enterprise. One such product is the book “Elf Pets: An Arctic Fox Tradition” retailing at $24.95. There are also numerous outfit options to buy for your elf to dress up in. Most of these retail at $9.95 each. 

Whether or not Elf on the Shelf can be branded as a Christmas tradition, it is undeniable that it is also a money maker. Also evident, is the fact that its creators are actively pursuing the making of more profit, rinsing the idea for all of the economic value it is worth. The Christmas tradition has now also become a birthday tradition. The simple elves in the original book have now morphed into fashion icons, ready for the catwalk at $10 a pop. Despite its critics, however, Elf on the Shelf remains a booming market, more popular than ever. As long as it is making money, it looks as if it is here to stay.


Share this story

Follow us online