Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa's Little Snitch

Would you like to make Christmas creepy?

Then get The Elf on a Shelf.

This is a book-doll combination that apparently has become popular in recent years, having sold 1.5 million sets since 2005.  (You can read more about it here.)  The book comes with an 8-inch-tall elf that parents are supposed to place in the house where their children can see.  Each night of the Christmas season they are supposed to move the elf to a different location while the kids sleep.  In the morning, the rugrats hunt down the elf's new location.

That sounds fun enough.  A holiday hide-and-seek.

But the idea is that each night the elf departs and goes to the North Pole to tell Santa Claus whether the kids have been naughty or nice.  Think of him as Santa's warrantless wiretap.

The idea is to convince the children of this nightly reporting, and so use the elf as a means to encourage good behavior.  He is like a surveillance camera that becomes part of the family.  (He sounds like he was invented in East Germany.)

The story I read mentioned children talking to the elf, and I can imagine them telling the elf to relay to Santa their Christmas present requests.  The elf does see Santa each night, after all.  What better way to keep the Fat Man up to date on the latest toys?  But I can easily imagine the children trying to persuade the elf to cancel that's night trip because of some misdeed that day.  Or perhaps the children try to bribe the elf to change his story, or to embellish the child's virtues. 

Elf on the Shelf strikes me as a kind of fetish.  People commonly use the word "fetish" to discuss an object  which a person becomes excessively attracted to or obsessed with, such as feet in high heels or Justin Beiber.  But in anthropological and religious circles, the term refers to an otherwise inanimate object that is believed to possess a life force or spiritual powers.

If I were a kid, I would probably hide the little narc.  Hide him in a boot at the back of the closet, so he couldn't see what I was doing.  Or stuff him in the cat box to teach him a lesson.  But then he would know I did that, and he would report me.

Each family is encouraged to name its elf, to make him (female elves are available) unique.  Some names are mundane or cute and others are irreverent.  One family named its elf "Buttface."  Don't you think that would backfire?  Don't you think the little dude would tell Santa about that?

I think Elf on the Shelf is actually kind of dangerous.

How long before Santa tires of hauling those lumps of coal around to give to naughty children?  How long before Santa has Buttface and his crew become enforcers, dishing out punishment on Christmas Eve while the children sleep?

I cannot help but imagine that possibility because I have been creeped out by dolls since Trilogy of Terror, a made-for-TV movie from 1975 that included the story of a murderous "Zuni fetish" doll chasing Karen Black around her home with a kitchen knife.  Oh, and a segment called "The Doll" (1971) from the first season of The Night Gallery, in which a British army officer is terrorized by his niece's doll.  Think of them as Chuckie's grandfathers.

Now, those two storylines smack of postcolonialism -- the revenge of the Third World in the form of a child's toy -- and I know we have not conquered the North Pole.  But since we seem determined to melt the polar ice cap, perhaps Santa will need these little minions for a pre-emptive strike.  Kill us before we can kill him.

So, if you have an Elf on the Shelf, I would sleep with one eye open.  And hide the cutlery.


  1. Okay, this is really weird. I am not planning on buying this for my daughter. And it's been years since I read Malinowski's work.

  2. And I thought the "He sees you when you're sleeping..he knows when your awake" line was creepy enough. Now he's got his own elven KGB out? Yikes.

  3. "Dear Santa, Let me explain." This is so creepy. I bet it works for parents whose children don't respect their authority. I've been creeped out about dolls since Talking Tina on The Twilight Zone.

  4. I hate that creepy little thing. If someone gave me an Elf on the Shelf I would bury it with a sprig of holly through its heart.