It started as a whim one November day when, walking through Barnes and Noble, I spotted a pile of white boxes stacked against a wall. The sign said 30 percent off, so I wandered over and there it was: the Elf on the Shelf gift set. Looking at that distinctive red elf peering out at me through the clear plastic window, I made a snap decision. Why not, I thought, and bought it.
(Turns out I’d purchased the Spanish language version of the book, which is why there were so many, but whatever. The story’s the same.)
Elf on the Shelf was a late addition to our family’s holiday repertoire. I’d dismissed it before as too commercial: cute story, but the whole idea of hiding a doll in your house and telling your kids he was spying on them in order to report back to Santa? Kind of creepy.
Now however, the appeal to me was in the prankster aspect of the story. Our kids were teenagers when I brought home our elf, long past the mystery of Santa. I saw the elf, who we named Jerome (you have to give your elf a name in order to activate the magic), as a way to put some mystery back into December. In other words, I did it for me.
(A quick aside about the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon: Written and self-published in 2004 by a mother and daughter team, the book was originally promoted at toy trade shows and book signings. It began to pick up awards (I know) and sales went through the roof. In 2011 CBS aired “An Elf’s Story,” a 30-minute animated special; one year later, the elf made its debut as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Which just goes to show that yes, there is a Santa.)
As for what to do with your own elf, 30 minutes on Pinterest is all you need to get started. There you’ll find ideas for places to hide the elf, funny scenes to create for him, and ideas for pranks (gift wrap your kids’ toilet, write messages on mirrors with lipstick, hang your elf from the ceiling on a chain made of candy canes). That first December with Jerome, I came up with more elaborate stunts (covering bedroom doors with gift wrap, sticking bows on mirrors) and scenes (Jerome making snow angels in powdered hot chocolate, or burying himself nose down in a bag of holiday M&Ms). Jerome became legend.
When our daughter went to college, I texted her a picture of Jerome’s shenanigans each morning; this year, Jerome appears via group text to the whole family. Next December our son will also be away at school, and I’m confident Jerome will adapt to that as well. He’s cool like that.
Recently I came across another display in Barnes and Noble, a familiar white box with (this time) an elf wearing white staring back at me: Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition. This one is a hard pass. Spying on kids for Christmas is one thing, but for their birthdays? Nah. Besides, there’s only one elf for us.
Jerome will never share the spotlight.