For the past decade or so, I've had a live-and-let-live relationship with the Elf on the Shelf.
For the few of you who may be unfamiliar with this holiday phenomenon, it’s a fairly recent tradition where parents hide the mischievous doll in new places every night after the kids are in bed. The Elf gets into all sorts of trouble, and the kids believe that he or she acts as Santa’s eyes and ears on the ground as Santa does a final review of the naughty and nice list.
I’ve chuckled at the funny photos that parents post. I didn’t mind when one of my kids’ teachers used the Elf in her classroom last year to encourage good behavior in December. But I have been firm in our home from the start: the Elf on the Shelf is not welcome here.
By the time my oldest asked about the Elf, I knew myself well enough to know that this was a tradition that I would come to dread. I would find it fun for two or three days, then it would feel like a burden. I could imagine the late-night panicked conversations with my husband (“You didn’t remember to move the Elf, did you?”), as well as the excuses that we'd have to make on all the mornings we forgot. If our tooth fairy experiences are any indicator, the Elf on the Shelf is not something we would do well.
Our kids rolled with these inhospitable feelings. Until last week. On Friday, my youngest came home from school in tears, saying, “Did you know that the Elf on the Shelf leaves presents?” “No”, I reassured her, “the Elf just hides. There are no presents involved. Kids must have been talking about Santa, and you just misheard.” “No, I didn’t! Luke’s mom came in to read today, and she said that the Elf had left the book for Luke that morning.” And, then, Sarah said that her Elf left her a stuffed animal this morning.”
I looked at my oldest, and she confirmed, “Yep, apparently, the Elf on the Shelf now brings presents to kids every day before Christmas.”
Twenty-four additional presents before we even get to Christmas morning?! Freakin' Elf on the Shelf.
I know these families, and I know that they’re just trying to create a magical holiday for their kids. They’re not intentionally trying to create pressure on other families who are trying to celebrate in a less-materialistic way. But the pressure is there.
"You can explain the value of money to kids, but you can’t explain Santa’s discrimination to a heartbroken kid."
Already, I feel like I’m paddling upstream by trying to instill in our children the belief that the holidays are, for us, primarily about our faith, serving others, and connecting with loved ones. And, for so many families, the need to celebrate in a simpler way is driven by financial considerations. It may be hard enough just to swing presents from Santa, much less a pile more from the Elf on the Shelf.
Just last week, a parent’s Facebook post about this very issue went viral. This post read, “Not all parents have a ton of cash to spend on making their kid’s Christmas special, so it doesn’t make sense to have Santa give your kid a Playstation 4, bike, and an iPad while his best friend at school gets a new hat and mittens.”
This parent encourages others to be modest with their gifts from Santa and to label the more expensive presents as coming directly from them, not the North Pole: “You can explain the value of money to kids, but you can’t explain Santa’s discrimination to a heartbroken kid.”
Obviously, parents are free to give to their kids in the manner that they wish. And this parent was not asking others to give only less-expensive gifts. He or she was simply requesting that we be more thoughtful about Santa and recognize that the gifts we buy from him (or his Elves) for our children may negatively impact others.
The idea is to have the simpler gifts come from Santa, so that those whose parents are not able to give pricey gifts (or any gifts at all, for that matter) don’t feel as left out. I certainly have never approached our gifts from Santa in this way. But I will from now on. The book and art set are coming from Santa. The expensive water park tickets are coming from us.
If Santa has always been extremely generous in your home, it may not be as easy for you. But you could rearrange a few of the tags on your Christmas gifts this year, and see how it goes.
And the Elf on the Shelf is still very much not welcome in our home.
I stopped my daughter’s tears on Friday by explaining that there are always going to be some traditions that other families celebrate that we don’t. Similarly, we celebrate in ways that others don’t. I explained how we celebrate Three Kings’ Day by putting out grass and water for the camels because I’m from Puerto Rico, and that’s how my family has always celebrated. Other families don’t get a visit like that.
She wasn’t totally satisfied by my answer, but it was enough to stop the tears and to get her to accept my offer to read a Christmas story to her.
In the past, I’ve also had to explain why Santa brings our kids fewer gifts than other families we know. My answer has always been that Santa knows that I believe that too many presents under the tree is not what’s best for families.
So Santa’s gift to me is to keep it simple. So far, so good, although I did get a sigh from my tween last year and a “yeah, yeah, more fun, less stuff…we get it.” Ah, the hardships of being the child of a New Dreamer. But she still counts Christmas as her favorite holiday, despite the very small pile of gifts under the tree.
Edna Rienzi is Director of Programs at New Dream.