Love it or hate it, there’s no hiding from it – Elf on the Shelf is everywhere.
The month-long festive tradition, which sees parents moving a toy elf around the house every day in December for their kids to find, has taken social media by storm. This elf is not just on the shelf, it’s all over Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, too.
Elf on the Shelf first arrived in the UK in 2013, having exploded in popularity in its native US. It all started with a story Chanda Bell wrote with her mum back in 2001 – and they had no idea it would become what it has today. Now, it seems there’s no stopping them.
“My goal would be to put our elf on every shelf,” says Bell, when I meet with her while she’s on a trip to London, spreading elf awareness. “I want our elf to become as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus.”
She may not be far off – a tweet by journalist Tom Harwood found searches for ‘Elf on the Shelf’ now surpass those for both Father Christmas and Santa...
Here are 10 things you probably won’t know about the phenomenon.
Elf on The Shelf began as a tradition in Bell’s own family. Chanda says her mum had a little elf and used to tell them it was watching for Santa Claus. Her mum said it would fly back to the North Pole at night and land in a different spot in their house each morning. There were no fancy creations, just a moving elf. “It was magical,” says Chanda. “It was imagination and fun and laughter and all the things you want Christmas to be.”
Bell wrote the elf story as a way to help ease her mum’s depression. In 2001, Chanda’s mum wasn’t doing very well. “She had some physical issues and was quite depressed,” Bell says. “It was right after September 11 and it was a really hard time for her. I remember looking up and seeing our elf sitting on a shelf and that’s when I suggested we write the book together.” Bell says the whole purpose of the exercise was for her to do something fun with her mum. “There was no idea it would even be made into a book or company.”
Every publishing house rejected the Elf on the Shelf story. After writing the story, Chanda and her mum got an agent who took it to all the publishing houses – but no one would take it. They ended up finding an illustrator who’d do it for cheap and self-published the story. They raised enough money (through Chanda’s sister selling her house and using credit cards) to make 5,000 box sets which they sold from their car boot, at small trade shows and shopping markets. “We would tell people one-by-one, and just knew if they tried it how much they’d like it,” Bell says. “In those first two years, we had gone to enough shows that we had 18 stores or accounts carrying the product.”
Jennifer Garner helped it go viral. In 2007, Garner was papped holding an Elf on the Shelf box set in clear view. “I still have no idea how she got it,” says Bell. “I don’t know how it happened but it did and the paps went crazy about it.” Six weeks later, the Today Show did a whole segment on Elf on the Shelf. “It was never the same after that,” she says. “The phone rang off the hook, it was just everywhere. It was crazy.”
The family worked for nothing for three years. Despite Elf on the Shelf gaining in popularity, the family couldn’t get the banks to lend them money. “All the profit from one batch would go right back into making the next batch of product,” Bell says. “Me, my sister and my mum worked for free for three years – yes, it was doing well, but we had no money and put everything we had into this product.”
Social media gave Elf on the Shelf its biggest boost. Social media wasn’t around when the elf was launched in 2005, “but when it was, it changed the landscape for everybody,” says Bell. People posted pictures of their elves on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, and spread the word.
But... Elf on the Shelf was born out of simplicity (it’s not complicated). Yes, you might have seen all the extravagant creations online and assumed you have no time for it, but that’s not the heart of what Elf on the Shelf is about. “People who think it’s complicated haven’t read the book,” says Bell. “You just have to move your elf, that’s what we did! It’s not complicated at its very core – it’s so easy, there really is nothing to it.”
The tradition focuses on kindness. The idea is that an elf is there to “watch” children’s behaviour and report back to Santa, so it’s there to instil themes of kindness and generosity. “We want to imbue the spirit of Saint Nicholas and support the idea of good behaviour,” says Bell. “Because Santa needs this kindness and generosity and cheer, so they are the things we are trying to share. Those are the opportunities we hope to give parents to talk about.”
Bell had told her kids how she’s involved. She’s had her own elf at home since having children who are now 12 and 17 (and she only recently had the chat with her youngest about the “secret” of Santa). “I’ve always told my kids I work for Santa, so they believed their mum just helps tell Santa’s stories through Elf on the Shelf,” she says. “They totally embraced the elf, the first thing my daughter said when I told her ‘the truth’ was ‘will the elves still come back?’ Our motto is ‘if you don’t believe, you don’t receive’”.
The family are still blown away by how big it’s become. It’s been years, and they’ve seen thousands of elves, but Bell says people’s amazing elf creations mean so much to her and her family. “Mum is completely blown away by it,” she says. “All of us are, it’s more than we could have ever imagined and it’s such an honour that people care and want to hear the elf story!”
Her proudest moment so far, says Bell, was seeing an elf in actual space when NASA tweeted out a photo. “I flipped out,” she says. “That’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my whole life – it’s fabulous.”
Tips for parents:
1. Get the book – read it together as a family so you can understand the tradition, says Bell. It’s all about doing it as a family.
2. Keep your elf up high when they’re not so easily touched. “They like the view,” she says, “they can see more from up there.”
3. Avoid sitting your elf on lamps and lights. “It hurts those elves when their bums get scorched,” she says.
4. Your elf moves can be simple, it really can just be them moving back and forth. “That’s what my child’s elf does,” she says. “And what mine did.”