Oh Troublesome Elf


I’m of two minds about the elf on the shelf. My first mind says “There is something wrong with manipulating children into being good for roughly 25 days by giving them an imaginary elf who tattle-tales on them to another imaginary elf and the amount of “gifts” they receive is contingent on an arbitrary evaluation of their behavior.” (That particular mind is long-winded.)

My other mind says, “Lighten up. Its a cute holiday tradition. Don’t over analyze it. Just have fun watching your kids. Besides Curmudgeonly McCurmudgeonson over there (points to first mind) will just get you in hot water with a lot of stay-at-home moms who need all the help they can get keeping their children from bringing the house down around their ears. An imaginary elf who makes the kiddies act just a bit nicer during the silly season is not a bad thing.”

Yeah but . . . Come on . . . that elf is creepy in a “I’m-Chucky-And-I’m-Going-to-Get-You” sort of way. Hey wait a minute, who are you? Me? I’m his third mind. I usually stay quiet. Its better for everyone.

If you are unfamiliar with this new wrinkle on Christmas then let me explain. You can buy the Elf on the Shelf which comes with a colorful book.  Then the “magic” starts:

In the back of each book, families have an opportunity to write their elf’s name and the date that they adopted it. Once the elf is named, the scout elf receives its special Christmas magic which allows it to fly to and from the North Pole. However, the magic might go if touched, so the rule for The Elf on the Shelf states: “There’s only one rule that you have to follow so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.” Although families aren’t supposed to touch their scout elf, they can talk to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes so it can report back to Santa accurately.

Sometimes when it comes to Santa Claus and now the Elf on the Shelf I feel abit like King Ahab of Israel when he sees Elijah the prophet coming.

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”

The elf is troublesome for some of the same reasons Santa is troublesome. It presents to us a dilemma. Here’s Last year’s post about Santa:

Santa presents a dilemma for Christians. If we reject Santa all together our children’s friends and acquaintances will almost certainly not. Then parents start looking like another imaginary figure from holiday lore–the Grinch. On the other hand, if we embrace Santa we have a whole different set of problems. First, we seem to deceive our children for a few years about a man who lives at the north pole and defies the laws of physics every Christmas eve. Then one day, the magic fades and we make cynics of our kids. Perhaps they begin to wonder is there anything else we blindly believe in that makes us happy but ultimately is a myth. In other words, we run the risk of creating not just cynics but hard core skeptics about anything they can’t see.

But that fun part of my mind still thinks: “Oh pshaw, the kids know the elf isn’t real. You brought it home from Target after all! You don’t give kids enough credit. It’s just a fun holiday game.” Then I read this from one of those stay-at-home moms:

Do you really want to teach your children that the eye-in-the-sky is watching them and Christmas is all about whether it sees them do good things or bad things? Do you want their motivation for being good to be the promise of presents or the fear of less presents? Have any one of us ever given our child a lump of coal? You know their behavior will not affect your list or it certainly shouldn’t. Gifts are unconditional. That is why they are called gifts, not rewards or wages.  Teach them this biblical economy and you are sharing the unconditional love of God. It’s really beautiful when you think about it.

Maybe that’s what irks me about the troublesome elf. Maybe its because far far too many people think that getting into heaven is like getting presents on Christmas day: If you are good you get them and if you are bad you get something bad. Its what’s so fundamentally wrong with this little meme making the rounds on Facebook:

The lettering like the sentiment is a bit unclear but the gist is that if you threatened to torture and burn your child if they didn’t agree with you, we should consider that child abuse (or at least the threat of abuse). However, saying “IF you disobey me again, God will take you underground and burn and torture you,” is apparently not abuse. There are so many things wrong with this analogy, its hard to know where to start. But one thing is for certain. The idea is “tit for tat” God is just bigger than we are and he sets the rules. IF you are naughty you get torture. If you are nice, you don’t. There is no room for grace at all. Replace “torture” with “less presents” and you get the idea. Come to think of it, maybe Atheists and Christians might be able to agree that the Elf on the Shelf might be teaching a bad worldview. So help me sort this out: Is the Elf on the Shelf harmless holiday fun or is it really just manipulative and creepy? All three of my minds look forward to your comments.


Oh Troublesome Elf — 9 Comments

  1. Hi Jonathan

    I’d like to answer or comment with a question. What do you tell the child (about the elf or santa) who has been very well behaved when you can’t afford to give any presents? I think how you would respond in this case is your answer.

  2. I think the elf is even creepier than Santa. I have always felt that Santa teaches greed, and see it in the many “letters to Santa” columns.

    We taught our kids from the beginning that he was a fairy tale, and then had fun with it the way we had fun with Snow White. I think THAT is the proper way for Christians to teach about Santa, including the history behind him (St. Nicholas)

  3. My kids are 9 and 11, so they are too old for the elf. However, we always let them know that Santa was just a game and we all played along. I don’t think we should lie to our kids, so I made sure that they knew that Santa from my side and Niño Dios from their dad’s side were important traditions, but not factual. We do the same for the tooth fairy (AKA El Ratoncito Perez). It turned out to be a good thing on many levels, since their three best friends are a Jewish kid, a Hindu, and an atheist who don’t do Santa at all.

  4. We DO have an elf (named Elfie) and we DO play Santa. We believe it is all in HOW you portray the two. We do not go to the extremes of “Elfie is watching you”, we more have Elfie for fun in that he visits with us and “does” something different everyday.. The boys love looking for Elfie to see what he is doing each day. Sometimes he is doing something good, is sometimes up to no good (and it is a good teaching lessons), and sometimes he is just chilling.

    Both our kids DO believe in Santa and while it is a lot of fun and really excites them, it does tend to lean towards “greed”. Also, I really enjoyed the first response to children who have been good but don’t receive presents. We do not connect behavior to a reward such as Elfie or Santa bringing presents. They are gifts.

    As parents, it is our responsibility to teach about the REAL meaning of Christmas and also about giving unselfishly. It is a fine balance, I believe we definitely have made our errors in this area as well, but I wouldn’t change that we did decide to have fun with the two. We just to have to work extra hard talking about reality and meanings behind the Season.

    When our kids finally ask us if Santa exists and if Elfie is real, we will tell them no and go from there. In the end, the years of childhood are short and enjoying it with some Christmas magic all seems worth it to us in the end…..as long as we do our part to teach about Jesus and giving as well.

    And…I know I will be the in the minority column here as well, but trust me, we have thought about all that has already been said.

  5. Jonathan,
    Having read the article, I see very little in common with what we did and what Driscoll suggests. He claims it is somehow some sort of “worship” of God. I’m not sure why you find it “interesting” that there are some similarities between our ideas of how to teach about Santa.
    (and I really don’t like being associated with Mark Driscoll)

    Care to explain the problem?

  6. Graceland Baptist Church promotes Elf on the Shelf Christmas Program

    Dear Pastor David Houtsma and Members of Graceland Church,

    I received an email about the promotion of your Christmas program video entitled: “Alf on a Shelf”.

    I would hope that you are not promoting Elf on a Shelf, that this was just a spoof or parody.

    Nevertheless, this is a mockery of Christ.

    I once told an 8 year old girl very kindly that I knew the Lord was omnipresent, but how does Santa do it with all of those presents delivered worldwide in 24 hours? She told her mom that I said there was no Santa. That is true, but not quite how I put it (I put in the form of the question earlier in this email).

    Roman Catholics are not the only apostates and heretics who promote Santa and The Elf on a Shelf…most Protestants teach their children and practice Santa. Even the Conservative Baptist Church that I grew up in and attended when John MacArthur’s father Jack was pastor, lead this megachurch in “We know that Santa’s on his way” (by pastor at that time)…and that was the 90s.

    No one but my wife and I batted an eye…joined with delight in their delusion with the pastor thousands singing their hearts out.

    Neither Dr. Jack MacArthur & Dr. John MacArthur would have approved of promoting Santa (or Elves) in a church service or anywhere. I assure you that they both would never have tolerated the singing about Santa at either of their churches. And both opposed and exposed the teachings of Rick Warren!

    Here is my Biblical response to all of these well-meaning, but deceived so-called Christians:

    “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8

    And the Apostle Paul’s command for all Christians to abstain even from the appearance of evil:

    One more thing…in that add on your website the video features the music group Pentatonix. I was warned and alerted by a discernment ministry lady that this group as 2 gay male singers in it. Did you know that?

    I also note that Graceland conducts Rick Warren’s Celebrate Recovery. I hope and pray you take heed of these revelations and alert all of the members of Graceland Church.

    Sola Christos,

    James Sundquist

  7. We use the elf a little deiferfnt than the book. Our elf arrives the night of thanksgiving while our daughter is asleep. He shows up with a small toy, dollar store or something very small, and then leaves every night to visit Santa and tell him how the day went. When he comes back the next day he drops of a small toy and shows up in a deiferfnt place. We find this calms down the excitement from the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Christmas Eve’s gift is always Christmas PJ’s and a good bye note. Yes she does get a gift every night but it something simple as a new pencil for school to even just a note of encouragement for something that may have happened that day.

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