He Sees You When You're Sleeping: The Elf on the Shelf vs. Jesus

7 years ago

I was stuck in the Milwaukee airport when my former manager told me about Elf on the Shelf.

Apparently it's taking America by storm, one watched family at a time. The elf, it seems, watches the children for acts of kindness during the day and reports back nightly to the North Pole. When the elf returns, he finds a new perch and resumes watching. Amy of Wade's World nails it:

It's like a Santafied version of bribery.

And apparently, it works. My manager was so excited she practically shook as she described her girls' expression when their elf made his holiday debut last year. Ashlie from Mommycosm is an EOTS evangelist:

My kids named their elf Murray.  I love Murray with big, puffy hearts and stars in my eyes.  He's magic.  Not just because he flies back to Santa (almost) every night to report on the kids' behavior, but because he WORKS.  My kids are completely paranoid that Murray will report their naughtiness back to Santa.  This little creature is able to scare them straight in ways well beyond my rock star parenting skills.  I am golden for the next 26 days.

After fifteen minutes of hearing about the elf, one of my former co-workers e-mailed his wife from the airport and hooked his family up. I found myself hesitating. At first I thought it was because moving the elf around every day would be a lot of work. Then I heard my mother's voice asking, "What would Jesus say if he walked in the room right now?"

And I realized that was it. I thought it would be too confusing for my daughter to be watched by both Jesus and an elf at the same time. It's hard enough to explain religion without adding in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Disney Princesses. Though we don't have a home church at the moment, we pray before meals and every night and talk about faith and right and wrong and compassion and guardians on a regular basis. While I don't want to go so far as to guilt-trip the child to death with dogma, I do want her to develop an internal compass. However you learn right from wrong, you need one, and we've chosen to let Jesus be the face of What Is Right. How could I add in an elf?

When she asks about Santa, I answer tersely and change the subject. We tell her we schedule meetings with Santa each year to go over her short list but put ourselves in charge of updating him. We remind her she has to be good if she wants to be recognized for her behavior with presents. But I come right up on a lot of Santa stuff without totally throwing down. I know and respect that many people celebrate many different things in December, but we celebrate Jesus.

I don't publicly participate in religion now the way I did when I was growing up. We attend church sporadically. My daughter isn't playing a cow in a church Christmas program or singing carols in a church choir. Our lives are not as festooned with the outward trappings of the faithful as my parents' lives are. So why do I still resist the Elf on the Shelf? I'm a different sort of Christian, right?

Some welcome the replacement. Kelly at Mocha Momma writes of her childhood nativity scene:

Here was a reason Jesus couldn’t be out, according to my parents and it didn’t have to do with the fact that he hadn’t been born yet. It was because he didn’t have a bed. That’s right. The baby wooden Jesus wasn’t outfitted with sleeping arrangements. That was left to us children. My sisters and I all had to provide the bed for him with straw. Because of the manger, don’t you know? There was a bowl of straw next to the entire birthing party that was there for us to begin building a place for Jesus to lay his head. There was a trick to being “allowed” to put a piece of straw out for the bed: we had to do something good.

That's the part that has me stumbling. Kelly nailed it. Even the most religious families maintain a connection between behavior and an unseen and present-bearing entity. Many of the posts I reviewed while researching this post were branded as Christian blogs and going on about the elf. Why am I so conflicted?

I'm not against the pop-culture celebration of the Christmas holiday. And, despite my staunchly religious upbringing and my continued faith, I don't feel authentic in most churches. I just can't seem to go all the way -- either way -- with Christmas.

Rita Arens writes at Surrender Dorothy and BlogHer and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak.

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