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Why I Don’t Have an Elf on My Shelf

December 6, 2016


Today, on the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, we’re delivering a message: you’re being watched. But before any panic sets in, remember it’s not a bad thing. Kerry Trotter explores the intercession of both saint and Santa, and how a little gnome on a mantle doesn’t hold a candle to the blessed.

I love a good Christmas tradition. I really do. Secular and religious alike — trees, mangers, mistletoe, candy canes, carols, Santa — the works.

But there’s one thing that I can’t quite get behind. 

Elf on a Shelf.

If you’re not a parent of young children, this new phenomenon may have eluded you. The Elf on a Shelf is a foot-long, androgynous, red-suited doll that sits on much more than shelves in the build-up to Christmas to spy on your kids. The accompanying book (it’s brilliantly marketed) explains that each elf, which kids get to name, zips off to the North Pole every night to debrief Santa on the behavioral ups and downs of its charges, then zips back to the home to appear in a new and surprising spot before the kiddies awaken.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass. 

Perhaps it’s because my daughter is still too young to grasp the whole naughty vs. nice thing, or perhaps it’s the doll’s creepy little face, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that a new tradition was fabricated out of thin air to do the dirty work of parental discipline all the while raking in major dough for retailers. 

Or — let’s be honest here — perhaps the challenge of accommodating this month-long interloper sounds a little exhausting. I always figured that the elves that spied, unseen, in our windows were behavioral pipeline enough for Santa Claus. Now I have to open my home to these guys and provide them with Cheerio donuts and marshmallow beds? I already have a heavily medicated elderly dog. Enough with the free rides, people.

I do get why this is a “thing,” however, and why parents and kids alike are smitten. And I’m not saying that Santa won’t be sending a representative to the Trotter household in the future. Just not this year. I’m not ready for it. Neither is my daughter. 

I remember my parents threatening the presence of elves to ensure my compliance with their rules and order, and the fact that they stayed hidden, that they watched me undetected, was what kept me and my kin in line. If the elves were in the house, stationary and highly visible, couldn’t we have just lured a sibling into a different room to administer the wet willy or green crippler? Out of sight, out of Santa’s purview, right? And frankly, these days, even if a child is a holy terror day in and day out, I don’t know one peer parent of mine who would withhold Santa’s bounty as an I-told-you-so lesson in consequences. There’s an entire parenting psychology wall at Barnes & Noble that frowns on that sort of thing. So why bother?

Maybe these housebroken elves are Santa’s way of reminding us of his less G-Rated past — that once upon a time he was a bit of a loose canon who kept his nice list close and his naughty list even closer. Have you watched him in the Burl Ives Claymation classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? Not a warm and fuzzy guy. 

Today, however, is the Feast of St. Nicholas, the 4th century Greek bishop known for his generosity in spirit and of his earthly goods, who is the inspiration for our contemporary Santa Claus. He’s one of those saints on whom mountains of folklore, stories of miracles, and traditions have been heaped. He, being a modest and grace-filled sort, surreptitiously dropped purses filled with gold coins in a man’s window in order to keep his daughters out of prostitution. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the time he miraculously brought several dismembered children that had been stuffed into a barrel back to life. Not exactly the stuff of fluffy bedtime stories. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of, among other things, children, sailors, merchants, barrel-makers, archers, pawnbrokers, and this head-scratcher, thieves.

But make no mistake, this saint is a Catholic one, so in him is still inherent the message that we reap what we sow. We can’t live our lives continually making the naughty list and then wind up with an abundance of presents under our tree. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t outsmart God like so many elves on shelves. He knows when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake… 

In this context, the Catholic one, the earlier accounts of Santa’s personality, even Claymation’s, make a little more sense. The Santa-by-way-of-St. Nick was more a fighter for justice than a present-wielding fat man. He was a champion of children and a foe to the wicked. He had a bit of a rebellious streak. He didn’t tolerate naughtiness.

He handed out coal, for crying out loud.

Santa has taken a more benevolent turn in recent centuries, and kids everywhere, regardless of obedience levels, benefit. Pull your sister’s hair? Train set! Steal from your mother’s purse? New bike! Get irrationally angry? Have some Angry Birds merchandise! This “he’s watching you” parental battle cry is an empty threat.

So, an Elf on a Shelf, while sort of handy now, may eventually start to look the other way, too.

I’m not saying that Santa reconsider his jolly, generous shtick — heck, I’ve benefited from that as much as anyone — but perhaps we ought to let a little bit of St. Nicholas back into the Christmas mix, the man who tirelessly protected children from the omnipresent clutches of evil, the man who didn’t let the bad folks win, the man who did good when he thought no one was watching.

The man who taught us that consequences arise from bad actions, but also from the good ones. Even if no one sees you do it, you still did it. It had an impact.

And this is where the saints, such as Nicholas, break from the elves: they’re watching us, but not to judge us, not to withhold from us, but instead to save us. We pray to them for guidance and grace, and we keep them as icons on our shelves to remind us that we are never alone — not in the “I see you” sense, but in the “I’m with you” sense. Saints are our advocates, not our tattletales.

They know when we’ve been bad or good. But they pray for us regardless.

And what a gift that is.