It occurred to me today that Scrooge ought to have a conversion name. If Peter became Paul for recognizing Jesus as the Savior, Scrooge should get renamed for his rebirth too. Sage, maybe? Or something really lofty like Loveplenty. I know it’s too late to change it, but sometimes I like to revise literature in my head.
Scrooge is on my mind because there’s a little something about our contemporary American Christmas that makes me feel particularly grumpy: the relatively new phenomenon known as Elf on the Shelf. Elf on the Shelf (or Mensch on the Bench if you’re Jewish) created one of many modern parental expectations that serve as birth control for me. As if getting ready for Christmas morning isn’t stressful enough, now EVERY DAY FROM THANKSGIVING TO CHRISTMAS requires a surprising, staged message from the Elf to your child. It stresses me out, and I’m basically childless except for Walter, who makes scented surprises for me all the time, no holiday needed.
I’m veering dangerously into “back in my day” territory here, but bear with me. I have nothing but the fondest childhood memories of Christmas. My parents always made Christmas morning feel magical, and I count my blessings that they were able to afford to buy us gifts. What I remember most about the Christmas season as a child is going to the tree farm, pulling out ornaments, the warmth of Christmas Eve, the excitement of Christmas morning, and our delicious breakfast and fried chicken dinner afterwards. I feel so fortunate for those memories.
Yes, we talked about Santa when we made our Christmas lists, and we’d wonder what Santa would bring us. But the season really wasn’t all about Santa or presents. It was about family and Jesus and Nat King Cole and cookies. It was about Mom’s total love for Hallmark ornaments and my parents’ insistence that we spend Christmas in our own house, with our little family and with Mom’s tree. It was about Advent, about seeing my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and drinking Russian tea, which made me feel quite grown up.
My point is that I didn’t spend the whole season shitting bricks about what Santa thought of my behavior. Santa used to be the guy who was kind of paying attention to what you did, but you knew he’d come anyway. Now Santa sends out a legion of 10-inch spies to check up on children on the day after Thanksgiving. His Elves on Shelves wreak havoc and reward behavior with treats.
Did your son take out the trash without asking? Sprinkles the Elf should leave him a new set of Christmas pajamas! Did your daughter hit another little girl on the playground? Crinkles should write a note in his non-dominant hand saying that Santa’s watching. Was it a slow day in the behavior management realm? Tinkles should take all the toilet paper off the roll and pull a Toomer’s Corner all around the house.
Realistically, parents are probably “elfing” some time after 9:00 at night, after a long day of work, watching children, cooking, cleaning, homework, baths and bedtime stories. Instead of sitting down with some wine, you’ve got to create a trail of marshmallows between the 1st and 2nd floors or draw a toothpaste smile on the bathroom mirror that you’ll eventually have to clean up because the kids will just smear it around.
Aren’t you exhausted? I’ve never seen a child reacting to an Elf’s antics, so I honestly can’t say if the extra work is worth it or not. If I were a single parent coming off a long shift, I can tell you that it would take Academy Award-winning morning reactions to get that Elf moving every night. Personally, I would have the most minimalistic, lazy ass Elf on the block. I’d make my kids let me name her Saggy.
And doesn’t Elf on the Shelf make your children laser-focused on presents? Doesn’t it make Santa a bit of a shady, backroom director of central intelligence? In my mind, whether you believe Jesus is the reason for the season or think Christmas is about family, Elf on the Shelf meets none of those criteria. Sure, kids have long been bombarded with the message that Christmas IS all about the presents, but should the weeks leading up to The Big Night be tied so explicitly and consistently to reward?
This last objection might sound a little crass, but do children really need one more magical tradition for Christmas? They pick out trees and watch their parents string them with twinkly lights inside their homes—magic! They drink hot cocoa and have school Christmas parties and make macaroni necklaces for Mom’s present—magic! Then there’s good old, pre-espionage Santa—who could be more magical than that? Do they need more joy and wonder than a sanctuary full of candlelight on Christmas Eve, more excitement than that walk down the stairs on Christmas morning? I’m not sure it gets any better than that.
Maybe some of you parents really like Elf on the Shelf. Far be it from me to declare it categorically wrong for everyone. Maybe it’s worth it to have your kids behave for a month when you’ve got lumpty umpteen things to do. Maybe it truly is a joyful tradition that makes your family’s Christmas season precious and eventful. If so, go forth with Twinkie and Buttons and Dora the Explorer on a Shelf! Draw messages in spilled flour! Hide secret notes in the kitchen cabinets! Take videos of your child shrieking with joy when she finds Dunky upside down in the Jello pudding!
Maybe you just can’t get out of having an Elf. When Brick and Gryffin and Persimmon and Maddy Cate all have Elves, it’s hard to deny your own child, I’m sure. For you, I cry genuine tears.
So if you need a break from all that, Walter and I will just be hanging out over here with Baby Jesus and Santa. That’s about all we can handle. I have a hard enough time processing my role in the season without Saggy tapping me on the shoulder wanting to come out and play.
Oh, and if I have a Christmas conversion experience, please refer to me henceforth as Gingersnap Tinysmall. I just like the sound of it.