According to the advertising campaigns, TV shows, songs, and movies, Christmas is the most magically magical time of the year, a glorious orgy of happiness, home-cooked food, and perfect family togetherness. Stands to reason that it's a rough time for the people who have to both experience this enchantment and craft it for everyone else. The hardest hit by the demon of Christmas Cheer Making, in my opinion, are mothers, specifically youngish ones with youngish kids. While Christmas used to just mean (SPOILER ALERT) staying up later than the kids under the age of 8, eating some cookies, and drinking some milk, now it's a month-long full-time wonder-a-thon.
New "traditions" like The Elf on the Shelf have transformed a holiday ostensibly about the birth of a very poor baby in a manger who gets a measly couple bottles of oil into a Childhood Magic Arms Race, leaving moms who don't get involved or don't get involved enough wondering if they are failing their children.
If you've never heard of The Elf on the Shelf, let me explain. The Elf on a Shelf: A Christmas Tradition was a self-published book originally released in 2005 that got made into a movie in 2011.
The basic idea is that this creepy-looking elf keeps close tabs on childrens' behavior in the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, before somehow magically sneaking away to the North Pole to report back to Santa. But here's the kicker: even though no one is allowed to touch it, the elf's position in the house magically changes every day — and the children have to find it.
For about the last two years my Facebook feed has filled up with images of these elves. People I went to high school with make their elves do all kinds of ingenious things in the middle of the night, which leads me to believe that no one I know is getting enough sleep.
How and why did we get so obsessed with these stupid elves? Busy Phillips and her People Magazine Elf on the Shelf spread might be one reason. Pinterest boards full of Elf on the Shelf ideas might be another. Either way, calling The Elf on the Shelf a "tradition" is a massive stretch. It's no more of a "tradition" than red cups at Starbucks. It's an advertising campaign. Let's please agree there still is a difference.
And while we're agreeing, can we settle on how UN-cute these things are? They're like horror-movie dolls that come to life to murder you in your sleep, not to make you treats.
The really crazy thing, at least to me, is that I can't imagine kids care at all about The Elf on the Shelf, until they are told they are supposed to.
The Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is clearly not for kids; it's for their parents.
As far as I can tell, people I know are spending so much time doing this weird elf thing not because it has meaning for them, but because they feel inadequate. Their friends' elves are so crazy and adorable! They don't want to deprive their kids, who (let's be real) have never been deprived of anything ever, of a flicker of whimsy in the mornings of December.
I wonder if the kids who get now-daily doses of enchantment will remember it, or if they'll be overwhelmed with holiday spirit entitlement that they never appreciate anything again.
And what about the Jewish and Muslim and other general non-Christmas-celebrating kids who already have to bite their tongues about the veracity of Santa Claus and listen for hours while their buddies make exhaustive lists of everything they want a fictitious man to bring them? Or the kids whose parents don't have money for presents at all, let alone a tree, let alone 25 days of elf magic?
Mostly, I'm less worried about the kids and more worried about their moms, the moms my age, who every year are expected to do more and more to make life wonderful for everyone around them. The mothers I know are already working, taking care of kids, smiling, and supporting their families. Now, they're looking at Pinterest boards or Instagram pages and feeling like they've failed at Christmas if they haven't fashioned a unique elf tableaux out of chocolate and iPads.
I have a relative, who shall remain nameless to protect her identity, for whom this Christmas magic is a huge struggle. The other day on Facebook she wrote:
As if having those dang elves recreate the Sistine Chapel with sidewalk chalk in your driveway was not enough to keep you busy, my 5 yr old just informed that "if you're good... everyone else's elves leave them treats."...well let me tell you this year our elves have already downgraded from doing cutesy poses with the Legos, to barely clinging onto the fan blades (yet again)... What happened to peace on earth???? Now my kids either think they haven't been good or that they foster a pair of antisocial sociopathic elves who don't give gifts. For real people... Can we dial this down a little bit??
Which she followed up with:
And let me qualify my last Scrooge post by saying that I really seriously don't care if your family has a "Welcome home Elfie" magic dinner with live reindeer every night of the whole entire year... Just please don't let your kids believe this is how the whole world operates! There are some simple kids like mine who still think it's Christmas magic because their mom has three days in a row off work and that they were allowed to have two juice boxes at the class party... #thiselfwillnotdefeatme
This woman is a good mom. She has two kids and a very serious job. She's killing it at the mom game in pretty much every respect. So why should she feel so inadequate about her elf skills? And why should her children be lead to believe they are somehow entitled to so much elf-iness?
For lucky kids, Christmas has always been magical.
To me, magic was when I asked for Ninja Turtle slime, and my mom was like, "Absolutely no way ever, that is disgusting and toxic, and no no no" and then Santa brought me some.
So, dear moms (and dads, too): Christmas is Christmas. It's one day. Your kids are going to be happy no matter what you get them. If they aren't happy, then it's a good time for them to learn about disappointment, which will be part of being a human for their whole lives. Elves on the Shelves will not. (Hopefully.)
Let's stop Cold War-ing Christmas traditions and just let it be what it is: a Christian/Pagan winter light festival to stop us from killing ourselves from lack of sun, where we eat too much and spend time with crazy family members. Personally, I think that's enough.