History of Elf on the Shelf, Who Is More Than a Mom's Nightmare

·5 min read
Photo credit: Dia Dipasupil - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dia Dipasupil - Getty Images

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If you've found yourself around children during the holiday season, then odds are you've seen some Elf on the Shelf accessories sprinkled amongst other holiday decor and Christmas games. Maybe you've seen the tiny elf displayed at your nieces and nephews house, or you've heard your parent friends discuss their best ideas for this year's elf shenanigans. Maybe you yourself have little ones and already Googling 2021 Elf on the Shelf ideas. No matter how much time you spend with children this holiday season, it's helpful to know what, exactly, Elf on the Shelf is. It's much more than just a kid-friendly decoration, after all.

In its simplest form, Elf on the Shelf is a book. The story, written by author Carol Aebersold, follows an elf whose job is to keep an eye on children for Santa. In the days leading up to Christmas, the elf reports back to Santa about which children are being naughty or nice, or so the story goes. And of course, the book comes with an elf figurine, too. Needless to say, the story gave parents an idea about how to encourage their children to behave throughout the month of December.

Through a series of clever surprises, parents typically surprise their kids each morning of December by placing the elf in different locations. Over the years, finding new, clever, and sometimes off-the-wall ideas for how to place the elf have become pretty elaborate. There are entire Etsy shops dedicated to providing creative, hilarious ways to display the elves.

The idea, of course, is that the elf is always watching and noting which kids are behaving and which are not. Though the concept of the elf monitoring kids' behavior can be a little divisive, many absolutely love the chance to surprise and delight their children with creative Elf on the Shelf displays. Have more questions about how the cultural phenomenon came to be just so popular? The details involve a Scandinavian Christmas tradition, Jennifer Garner, and the Macy's Day Parade.

The History of Elf on the Shelf

In 2005, creator Carol Aebersold (a stay-at-home mom at the time) and her daughter, Chanda Bell, published a children’s book called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, based on their family’s own Scandinavian holiday tradition that started in the 1970s.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Christa Pitts, Aebersold’s other daughter, told HuffPost. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

Though Fisbee was like a Christmas ornament for the family at the time, the elf evolved to become more magical over the years for the next generation of kids.

This Christmas tradition wasn’t an overnight hit, though. According to TODAY.com, “When Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, first tried to sell The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, every single editor and publisher turned them down.”

So the women published the book themselves. Instead of having a big publisher’s resources to market the book, the women sold it themselves one by one. “It was a bit of guerrilla marketing at first,” Bell told TODAY.com. The family produced 5,000 copies using credit cards and retirement funds, and sold them straight out of their cars and at state fairs.

In addition to explaining their family tradition to people they knew and strangers they didn’t, Pitts also attended trade shows to introduce the book about Santa’s scout to potential buyers.

It slowly picked up steam, and by 2007, actress Jennifer Garner was photographed by paparazzi holding the book, which helped spread the word.

Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination, the elf was a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012. The elf has since spawned other extensions to its franchise, including Elf Pets: A Saint Bernard Tradition, Elf Pets: A Reindeer Tradition, and a movie: Santa’s Reindeer Rescue. You can also now buy elf clothes and costumes, plus other story books and elves.

As of 2018, 13 million books (and elves) have been sold at over 15,000 retailers across the country, according to WSB-TV.

Come closer to Christmas, you’ll see hundreds of elves all over social media as parents showcase their creativity of where and how they display Santa’s scout. Check out the hashtag on Instagram for #elfontheshelf posts, which have already started to sprout up this year.

The Elf on the Shelf Rules

Ready to get in on the tradition yourself?

Once the elf is “sent to your home from the North Pole” (as in, after you buy it), it’s up to parents to facilitate the holiday magic. Your kid will name the elf, which come in both boy and girl forms, and you can read them the story from the book it comes with.

From there, the magic ensues. Little ones may believe that the elf miraculously appears on shelves, hanging on chandeliers, sitting on fireplace mantels, but truly, moms and dads are the creative geniuses working "behind the curtain."

Kids, on the other hand, are not allowed to touch the elf. It’s not a toy, after all. And if a child touches the elf, it’ll ruin Christmas — not to be alarmist.

Every night, the elf will go back to home base (the North Pole) to tell Santa if the child or children (whose homes they’re visiting) are being good or bad. When Santa’s scout returns, he or she will be found in a new spot. And of course, it’s up to the parents once again to fulfill what’s on the Christmas wishlist.

Basically, parents, you’re the elves.

Whether you love or hate the Elf on the Shelf, this fictional character changed Christmas forever. If you’ve had it in your home, you can’t deny that it sparks joy in your little ones. If you haven’t had it in your home, you may be missing out on all the fun (or headache) depending on how much holiday cheer and creativity you have in your soul.

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