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Just say 'no' to the 'Elf on the Shelf'

A Elf on the Shelf  balloon seen at the 93rd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2019 in New York City.  (James Devaney/Getty Images)
A Elf on the Shelf balloon seen at the 93rd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2019 in New York City. (James Devaney/Getty Images)

“Mom, have you ever heard of something called an Elf On A Shelf?” my daughter asked. She was 7, it was December, and this was a question that I had been dreading for years. I knew the day would come, and now it had arrived. It was time to face the Elf and admit that I didn’t want him in my home.

To be clear, I love Christmas. I put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving. I make gingerbread houses from scratch. We write to Santa. We usually have at least two advent calendars. But how to say this to an adorable 7-year-old face, alight with the glow of holiday magic? “Yeah...” I admitted. “I’ve heard of the Elf. But the Elf is not for us, sweetie.”

“Why not? Ally has one and it moves around at night.”

“Yes, I know,” I told her. I had seen the pictures on Facebook and Pinterest. An Elf caught in a toy car with Barbie riding shotgun. An Elf busted in a bowl of holiday-colored M&Ms.

In case you aren't familiar with the ubiquitous Elf, he catapulted to status as a pop culture icon thanks to the bestselling 2005 children's book “The Elf on the Shelf.” In the story, the Elf is in charge of keeping an eye on children so that he can report back who has been naughty and who has been nice. The Elf moves around at night, which is evidence that he's real. Since then, the book (packaged with a toy Elf) has sold over 11 million copies, and the Elf himself has starred in a holiday movie and soared over Manhattan as a giant balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I object to the Elf because I don’t need one more thing to do every single night.

I know some parents who object to the Elf on the Shelf because they don’t want their children to feel as if they are “under surveillance.” I object to the Elf because I don’t need one more thing to do every single night.

I don’t want to feel like a parenting failure because our Elf sometimes forgets to move or moves only from one side of the mantel to the other. I don’t want to spend hours trying to recreate brilliant/hilarious holiday-themed tableaus. I was already kind of a fail at the tooth fairy (that’s another story), why add this to my list?

My holiday season is already overstuffed with responsibilities. My husband, an avid Christmas enthusiast, is also Muslim (Jesus is a prophet in the Islamic faith), and not much help, because he didn’t grow up with Christmas. As a result, all the holiday stuff – from the wreath on the door to gifts in the stockings – is on me. That’s fine; I don’t expect him to do these things any more than he expects me to prepare a feast for Eid. But it means that I have to be judicious. I can’t just Elf out, or I’ll be a basket case by Dec. 25.

But I didn’t explain all of this to my 7-year-old. Instead, I did what moms do: I set limits. “No, honey,” I told her. “We’re not getting an Elf.”

There were, predictably, tears. There were recriminations. There were (unflattering) comparisons to other mothers. And then she went up to her room.

Things were quiet for a while, and I wavered over my decision. Would it really be that hard? I didn’t have to go overboard, after all ... Then again, motherhood has taught me that once you say no, it’s important to stick to your guns.

A homemade 'Elf on the Shelf," made by the author's daughter. (Courtesy Lisa Papademetriou)
A homemade 'Elf on the Shelf," made by the author's daughter. (Courtesy Lisa Papademetriou)

About an hour later, my daughter came downstairs holding something that was red, green, and white. “Look!” she said, proudly holding it out. She had cut out and glued several scraps of felt together to make something that looked like festive holiday roadkill. She grinned. She had made her own elf.

“Can I put him on our shelf?” she asked.

“He’s fantastic,” I said. “I love him. You can absolutely put him on the shelf, but ... don’t be surprised if he doesn’t move.”

“Oh, he will,” she said confidently.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, my problem with the Elf on the Shelf had never been buying one — it was remembering to move him around.

The next morning, when she checked, he had not moved. She didn’t hide her disappointment as she sat on the couch, eyeing her homemade elf. I felt like a crumb, and wandered into the kitchen to pack her lunch for school.

Then something magical happened. As I was in the kitchen filling her Thermos with soup, my daughter called out, “Mama! Mama, come look — he’s moved!”

Sure enough, that elf had disappeared from the shelf. I searched the living room, while my daughter told me if I was getting hotter or colder. Finally, I found him. He had tucked himself onto the Christmas tree. That wily elf!

For the rest of the month, the elf continued to move around. Usually, it was thanks to my daughter, but sometimes I gave him a helping hand to surprise her. It was easy. It was silly. It was fun.

This is the lesson we seem to learn over and over as parents: It is sometimes when we set limits that the real magic happens. When I said “no,” my daughter found a “yes” that was even better, one that made all of us happy.

And I know for a fact that our elf reported to Santa that she had been very, very good.

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Related:

Lisa Papademetriou Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lisa Papademetriou is the author of "The Dreamway" and many other novels for children and young adults.

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