The Elf on the Shelf is a children's book with toy that has been cleverly marketed as a modern Christmas tradition. It was created in the USA in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and her daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts1. The book illustrations are by Coë Steinwart. Helped by social media, the phenomenon spread across the Atlantic to the UK approximately ten years later.
Beginning as a children's Christmas toy that children cannot actually play with2 and that is taken away from them on Christmas Day, the Elf on the Shelf brand has spread to encompass books, short films, and an ever-growing range of clothes and other accessories. The brand also includes the Elf Pets range of animal toys, such as a reindeer with its own book, and a St Bernard dog with both a book and its own film.
The basic idea is that one of Santa's magical Scout Elves stays with a family throughout December until Christmas Day. He or she watches over the family during the day and, once everyone has gone to bed, will return to the North Pole to tell Father Christmas whether the children in the house have been naughty or nice. Every morning the Elf will fly back to the family home and appear somewhere different, so the children have to search through the house to find him or her.
Each family has to give the Elf a name in order to activate the magic. The Elf isn't allowed to be touched as this can hurt the Elf and drain the magic, even in extreme cases turning the Elf into a toy! The Elf comes with a rhyming book telling the story, and you can get an animated film too.
One Researcher described having an Elf-infested house with the words:
Well, the children absolutely adore him (naming him Cheery) and last year kept giving him Weetabix to eat each day. They have missed him since then, so were looking forward to seeing him again, particularly as my wife said that he'd be joined by a female elf too – who they've named Sparkle.
The Elves themselves look disappointingly cheaply made, especially considering the price. That said there is an old-fashioned, retro appearance to them that some find appealing. Their popularity and high price tag has led to a high number of cheap knock-offs being sold online - the makers of the official Elves spend much of the year pursuing lawsuits against those making unofficial elf merchandise3. The Elves' hands are sewn together, which is quite handy as it means they can hang from various items. However, the official clothes range is designed for unconnected hands.
As the Elves are sold in shops, packaged in boxes with price labels attached, taking children out to shops, garden centres and other places that may sell them can become difficult as parents try to keep the magic alive by preventing their children seeing them on sale4. It is still a Christmas 'tradition' that many people, for instance the children's grandparents, are completely ignorant of. Conversations between believing children and people who have never heard of the Elf on the Shelf can unintentionally threaten to awaken suspicion and scepticism and end a child's belief in Christmas magic.
Skirting the Issue: the Female Elf
The male and female Elves are physically identical but have a few minor cosmetic differences: the female Elf dolls have lipstick on their extra-shiny faces and a silver dollop on their ears representing stud earrings. Since 2014, Elves have been available with different hair and skin colours. This led to some controversy in 2017 when it was reported that Amazon sold white-skinned Elves for £19.99 and non-white Elves for £25.39.
The female Elf version of the book tells the same story but has been tweaked slightly. It looks like the male version of the book was made first, but they later changed the pictures in the book to create the female version by painting a little white skirt on all the Elf pictures even though the female Elf doll doesn't come with a skirt. To get around this, the words 'white skirt not included' are written in small, almost invisible letters on the female Elf doll's box. The Elf on the Shelf-brand white skirts are sold separately and often for more than the Elf, book and DVD (in which all the girl Elves wear white skirts) combined.
Who Watches the Watchers: Social Media
Social media platforms such as Facebook are frequently inundated with parents posting photographs of their children's Elves throughout December. This can be helpful to other parents desperately searching for ideas of where to put the Elves next, but frequently leads to Elf overload. There is no denying that their popularity on social media encourages/persuades other parents to purchase an Elf for themselves so they can also participate and post photographs every day too.