What exactly is The Elf on the Shelf?

Lauren Saxe
The history, rules, and celebrity wars that surround this recent holiday phenomenon.

Christmas is on its way, and in a few weeks the lights will be strung, the stockings hung and carols will fill the air.

The holiday season is often synonymous with tradition, and each family has one. Whether it’s grandma’s famous cookie recipe or a special tree topper, we all look forward to them every year. But what if your family tradition became a viral sensation?

For Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, that’s exactly what happened.

It all started with their "house elf,” Fisbee, who can be coined as the original Elf on the Shelf. Growing up, the Aebersold family had him sitting around the house, on the lookout for Santa.

“We both loved this tradition so much and there wasn't a lot to remember about it,” says Bell. “The elf never stopped coming to our home, no matter how old I got.”

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As they grew older, the mother-daughter duo reached crossroads in their lives. Carol, a newly minted empty nester, and Chanda, a first-time mom, decided to focus on a fresh project they could work on together as they transitioned into new life roles. Over a cup of tea one afternoon, they settled on one of their family’s most prized traditions.

The pair tag-teamed the brainstorm and writing sessions, and months later: voilà. The Elf on the Shelf was born. They wrote a book, and each came with its very own scout elf to keep an eye out during Christmas time. Now, the Aebersold story is a holiday staple around the world.

And it’s just as sweet and simple as that. These tiny elves gracing the nooks and crannies of living rooms everywhere are simply there to keep an eye out for the big man. A cheery family tradition has erupted into something Christmas lovers look forward to every year.

“It was fun for me, because I got to bring a child's point of view to the conversation,” says Bell.

“As a little girl, I remembered talking to the elf and racing my siblings out of bed to be the first to find the elf. Meanwhile, Mom got to bring her point of view as a parent and elaborate on the rules she had introduced us to as children, such as not touching the elf.”

It’s not just for kids, either. Couples, families and celebrities alike delight in this holiday activity that brings the childlike wonder we all love about the Christmas season.

The mother-daughter duo has garnered attention from stars like Kelly Clarkson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Busy Philipps and Kourtney Kardashian, who have garnished their homes with The Elf on the Shelf over the years. The tradition has become somewhat of a competition, with celebs posting their most creative Elf on the Shelf hiding spots.

Though watching celebs enjoy the tradition has been a highlight, Aebersold mentions that it’s everyday stories that have mattered the most.

“Sometimes, the sincerity of the tale and the amazing circumstances people overcome as a result of having the elf in their life is quite touching,” she says.

“One little girl suffered from select mutism and for the first time ever got up and spoke to her class about her elf. It was therapeutic for her and helped to change the course of her life. I am honored to be a part of that. “

Now that’s Christmas magic. And hey, next time you reach for the cookie jar, don’t be shocked to find a friendly, elfish little face peeking right around it.