Elf on the Shelf: An American Christmas Tradition

S is 17 years old, and was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I had a conversation with him about Elf on the Shelf, a popular toy that’s celebrated in North American Christmas celebrations. 

“Elf on the Shelf was like a little toy elf which my parents would move around the house every night in the month of December. They would say, “oh this is Santa’s little henchman and he’s going to spy on you and tell Santa if you’re good or not.” And so we would always talk to the elf and ask him, like, hey, can you give me a break for Christmas? And yeah, we thought he was real. And the rule was that you couldn’t touch him. Because if you touched the elf—which ours was named Perry—if you touched Perry, he would die, and lose all of his magic and be stranded. So one time, he was in the stocking and I knocked him over and he landed on me. And me and my siblings all started crying, because we thought Perry lost his magic. My brother and sister got really, really mad at me.”

I think it’s interesting that with such a widespread holiday as Christmas, we often see a merging between commercialization and folklore, with families buying into trends that ride the cultural wave of what’s popular in the market. Because before Elf on the Shelf, many families in the 20th century celebrated Christmas in a similar way with elves that parents would prop up around the house. It was only when a company published Elf on the Shelf and brought the tradition into a modern social sphere that the ritual skyrocketed into popularity. Now, kids recognize Elf on the Shelf as a practice that upholds Christmas magic—boldening their belief in Santa Clause and in the holiday itself. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the design of the Elf on the Shelf doll closely resembles the Christmas claymation films released in the United States in the 1960s. I believe that this decision to model off of those films may have allowed Elf on the Shelf to feed into our nostalgia for American media, which in turn made parents gravitate towards the toy as a gift for their children.