Yesterday, Religion Dispatches posted my piece on Elf on the Shelf as a prelude to surveillance culture. Here’s an excerpt:
“I need to be good because of the elf that lives my room,” my five-year old explained.
“The what? Who lives where?” I ask.
“The elf that knows if I’m bad or good,” she replies.
“There is no elf in your room,” I say.
“Yes, there is. He’s invisible,” she notes.
I sigh wearily.
I lost this argument, like many other Christmas-related debates in our household. When I told my daughter that Santa can’t fulfill every gift on her list, she declared that “he’s magic” as if that would solve the problem. Her imaginary elf is a version of The Elf on the Shelf, an androgynous, rosy-cheeked elf toy that monitors children as Christmas approaches.
The elf emerged from The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition co-authored by mother and daughter, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. The book alone has sold over six million copies since it was released in 2005. The story presents a “scout elf,” who journeyed all the way from the North Pole to watch children to find out whether they are naughty or nice. The elf surveils children during the day to uncover bad behavior, then it returns to the North Pole every night to report back to jolly old St. Nick.
For $29.95, parents can purchase the book and toy to start a new tradition—it is available in light or dark-skinned varieties and accessories allow families to transform the elf into a boy or girl. There are two rules that govern children’s interaction with their elf. First, the elf is magic, and a child’s touch can compromise its ability to return and report—its enchantment disappears if a child touches it for any reason. Second, the elf cannot interact with children during the day because its role is to observe and listen. The creators, however, encourage children to talk to their elves—especially to share secrets. The elf can learn more about the children, the more they share. Telling the elf secrets seems to secure a space on the nice list.