The holidays are a time of year that is filled to the brim with a wide variety of different festivities and traditions for families of all shapes and sizes. Christmas, especially, knows no limits when it comes to the vast array of traditions, old and new, to choose from and adopt. Over the past decade, the Elf on the Shelf, above all, has become widely known and popular among every corner of the globe.
The Elf on the Shelf is sold in festive packaging that includes a storybook and a small, pixie elf figurine inside. According to the said storybook, the Elf on the Shelf is considered to be one of Santa’s scout elves sent from the North Pole during the holidays to the homes of children to observe their behavior. The elves can usually be found sitting in a chosen spot in the family’s home and each night, they fly back to Santa to give a report on each child, as well as determine whether the children deserve to be on the naughty or nice list. Before the children wake, the elves return and pick a new spot in the house to hide out. This idea alone has children racing out of bed every morning to partake in the exciting game of hide-and-seek that the Elf on the Shelf tradition has created.
It all dates back to the 1970s, where stay-at-home mother Carol Aebersold fabricated the family tradition among the childhood home of her twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts. It hadn’t always been like the Elf on the Shelf that the world has come to know and love today, though. It was originally an ornament that never moved and, instead, stayed stuck to the Christmas tree. The tradition continued to transform over time and held a special place in the hearts of Bell and Pitts as they grew older. Bell even carried on the tradition with her own children but added that “the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn’t be touched or it would lose its magic.”
Then, in 2004, the odds turned against the family and their living conditions at the time weren’t looking too bright. Aebersold, unfortunately, fell ill and began facing issues with the family business. Meanwhile, Bell had no other choice but to moved in with her parents and pick up a part-time job working for her father in order to make ends meet and to provide for her son. That’s when Bell proposed to Aebersold that they write a poem about the Elf on the Shelf, which would eventually become the poem featured in the famous storybook. The pair had no original intention of creating their own business, but they all genuinely felt that it was truly a tradition worth sharing with other families around the world. Just in the following year, they invited Pitts onboard and launched Creatively Classic Activities and Books, their very own publishing house, where they would self-publish The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition. In order to do so, the family had to make many sacrifices along the way. Pitts dropped everything to move back to Georgia from Pennsylvania to live with her family, then put forth the money from the sale of her house. Her sister, Bell, took out a line of credit and their mother took all the money from her retirement account. The trio then hired local watercolor artist, Coë Steinwart, to illustrate the children’s storybook and published approximately 5,000 copies to sell online and at local trade show markets.
Things began taking a turn for the better in 2007 when a photo of actress Jennifer Garner holding the box containing the Elf on the Shelf was released. The photo and the elf quickly rose to fame and only a short month later, there was a segment ran on the Today show featuring the Elf on the Shelf. From there, the traditions rapidly gained attention, there was a higher demand for the elves, and more and more stores began selling the product until over 11 million elves have been adopted all over the world. Now, there is even an Elf on the Shelf balloon that has flown every year in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 2012.
Along with the new flood of popularity, though, the Elf on the Shelf has faced a wave of criticism coming from not only parents but journalists and psychologists as well. They claim that the idea behind the product is creepy and normalizes surveillance for children at a young age. Nonetheless, families that have taken up the new tradition continue to cherish and adore the excitement that the Elf on the Shelf brings during the holidays.
“The story itself never mentions any sort of crazy hijinks or anything that the elf is up to per se. And it certainly does not set up a way in which any elf behaves or doesn’t behave in your home. It’s a very simple story about a very simple elf tradition,” explained Bell in response to the backlash. “I don’t know why we feel the need as a culture to care what someone else is doing if it brings them joy and happiness. It’s like when the weatherman comes on and says on Christmas Eve that they spotted Santa’s sleigh. It’s just fun!” In addition to that, Pitts stated that “everyone can enjoy the Elf on the Shelf for its general simplicity. It doesn’t need batteries. It’s all about imagination and some Christmas magic in the mix.”
The trio now continues to add on to their collection of Elf on the Shelf products including a 23-minute animated holiday special that debuted in 2011, Elf Pets, a line of clothing and activity kits for the elves, a book for parents containing elf scene ideas, Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition, and Letters to Santa. This was all due to the huge success of the original Elf on the Shelf and Bells and Pitts are humbles, as well as honored to be the “Christmas tradition that is now … part of Americana. You get your Christmas tree, you see Santa at the mall, and The Elf on the Shelf comes. And I don’t think there’s any greater compliment in life than achieving a status like that.”