Why I Just Can't Get On Board With Elf On The Shelf

Not in my house – there’s something about it that just doesn’t sit right with me.

This article was originally published in 2018.

Elf on the Shelf, for the blissfully unaware, is a newish Christmas tradition (because we need more of those) where every day in December, children have to find the elf in their house.

He’s watching them, you see, sent by Santa to see how good they’re being, and reports back to the big man every night about niceness and naughtiness. Kids aren’t allowed to touch him, and parents secretly move him around at night, so every day, the wee one gets to look for the elf and it’s, like, fun?

Not in my house, yo. There’s something about it that just doesn’t sit right (although I do find the fact there’s a version called Mensch on a Bench incredibly pleasing – catchphrase: “Add more Funnukah to your Hannukah.”


Firstly, it’s a toy that kids are forbidden from playing with, which seems pretty antithetical to the idea of toys. None of the imagination and creativity that normally goes into playing with something like this – a cute, cuddly toy – comes from the child. It’s all their parents. The kids are explicitly told they can’t do anything. That’s rubbish. What a shitty toy.

Plus it’s really performative on the parents’ part – Facebook and Instagram are awash with smug parents patting themselves on the back for how inventive they’re being, putting their elves into wacky situations. They’re all like, hee hee hee, the elf has mischievously squirted “Merry Christmas” on the mirror in toothpaste! Ho ho ho, now he’s written “Jingle Bells” in magnets on the fridge! What a silly elf we’ve got!

Honestly, if you’ve got time to be sneaking around at night coming up with increasingly creative scenarios for this stupid jolly idiot to find himself in, constructing elaborate dioramas with household objects to impress the other parents on Instagram, you’ve got a blessedly easy existence and vastly more free time than me and I hate you.

Clean my house. Babysit my child. Maintain my friendships. Do some of my festive-themed freelance journalism. I want to go to the pub. I haven’t had a shower today, so where I’m meant to find the time to conjure up a whimsical series of activities for a tiny little magical bastard to partake in.

Elving on shelving seems like just another source of stress at a time of year that has vastly too much of it anyway. It’s 24 days of coming up with ideas, and 24 ideas is so many ideas. I live in a pretty small house – by day eight we’d be looking at highly inadvisable “Look, he’s hiding behind the bleach!” territory.

By day fifteen, I’d be scratching a key along the side of my own car and putting it in the elf’s hand. “Hee hee hee, let’s go outside and see what that naughty elf’s been up to today!” I’d mutter through gritted teeth, before realising I’d left the elf holding the car keys next to the car, and as a result my 2001 Honda Civic had been stolen, crashed into a skip and set alight.

“Holy shit,” other parents would say. “That household’s elf is really naughty.”

Is all of December Christmas now? Advent calendars used to just have pictures in them, then everyone had chocolate ones, and now there are loads where the kid gets a present every day. How many gifts and rituals must we do? How much money has to be spent just to keep up?

Elf On the Shelf flies high at the Macy's Parade.
tarabird via Getty Images
Elf On the Shelf flies high at the Macy's Parade.

The Elf on the Shelf may have started life as one family’s tradition, but it’s become a massive money-spinner – a book-and-elf package is 23 quid on Amazon, and you can buy now accessory packs and endless other tat. Is that, like, allowed? To just create a new tradition and then go on to relentlessly market it? It all just feels slightly unsavoury.

But there’s a bigger, more worrying element to it: the watching part. Not to get all tinfoil-hatty and paranoid (who’s been calling me paranoid?), but between our phones logging everything we do in the guise of fitness tracking, our every movement online being stored forever, CCTV, GCHQ and various other ungodly government things, we’re all being watched, all the time. The Elf on the Shelf puts forward two ideas: you are being watched – and do not question it.

That is… not cool. And we should question it. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calls what the Elf on the Shelf does “the normalisation of surveillance”, arguing that it “sets children up for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures”. When you know you’re being watched and judged, your every move is suddenly based around fear or greed. Is Junior behaving because they’re nice, or because they’re scared the beady-eyed goblin staring at them is going to tell on them and they won’t get the Marvel Infinity War Hulkbuster they’ve wanted all year?

As demonstrated by Jason Momoa on Saturday Night Live (below), watching a child’s every move could be pretty upsetting, especially as they get older...