As far as I can understand it from our kids, here’s the point:
1. The elf works for Santa by spying on children to make sure they are being good.
2. If the kids are good the elf will report back to Santa and the kids get lots of presents at Christmas.
3. If the kids aren’t good, then Santa will be less generous.
4. You aren’t allowed to touch the elf, or else the magic will be lost and there won’t be any gifts at Christmas.
On the one hand this is a fun, family activity that promotes a few laughs around the house. But I think there are some major downsides that we might be missing.
The biggest problem is that the Elf On A Shelf phenomenon overlaps with the Christian season of Advent. For centuries Christians have observed the four weeks leading up to Christmas as a time of preparation and waiting for the miracle of Christmas. Advent explores themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. The readings in Advent centre on themes of darkness and light, brokenness and healing, exile and homecoming, pride and humility. This period of waiting, wondering, and wandering is something we all desperately need. In a world that commercializes Christmas and constantly plays on our desires for more “stuff”, Advent enables us to resist those cultural forces and focus on the more important parts of life. In other words, Advent provides parents with numerous stories and resources to lead their children toward a truly meaningful Christmas. Yet, many Christian parents are choosing to put an Elf on a Shelf instead of putting an Advent Wreath on the family table.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Christmas story clashes so loudly with the Elf story. The Elf is a supernatural being that can’t be touched. But at Christmas we discover that the real supernatural being (God) can in fact be touched. Incredibly, God took on flesh and blood and lived and died as one of us. He didn’t stay on the shelf. He came into the world. He wasn’t untouchable. He was completely touchable, huggable, hurtable, and (even) killable. Christmas isn’t about something beyond our reach, it’s about a God who dwelt among us.
Furthermore, this God did not come to save us because we were “good little boys and girls”. Quite the opposite. God did not send his Son into the world as a reward for our good behaviour, but as the solution to our bad behaviour. The tattle tale Elf stands watch over us in judgement, threatening us with consequences if we misbehave. Thankfully God is more compassionate. He loves us even when we don’t love him. His love isn’t a reward we must earn. Elf theology says: “If I obey, God will love me.” Christian theology says, “Because God loves me, I’ll obey.” At Christmas we celebrate the God who loved us despite ourselves, the God who “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” (John 3:17)
Finally, the Elf on the Shelf sends a daily reinforcement to our children that Christmas is all about the presents under the tree. As if we need to encourage that! Every commercial on TV and every shopkeeper's window are already telling the story that Christmas is somehow about us and the things we need. Come on! Do we really need a whole month of pointing our children to the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning? Instead, spend the month leading up to Christmas by pointing your children to God. Tell them the stories of hope, joy, peace and love. Read them the stories of God’s transforming power that brings light out of darkness, comfort out of sorrow, and healing out of brokenness. Give gifts to others. Be generous. Show kindness. And then finally point them to the one gift that everyone needs, the only gift that satisfies our every desire, the gift that we cannot earn, and the gift that we don’t deserve: the gift of life given in God’s son Jesus Christ.
When you have God in a manger, who needs an Elf on a Shelf?