I was a little puzzled when the Elf on the Shelf started popping up everywhere and was referred to as a “holiday tradition” – I don’t remember his cherubic little face peeping from shelves when I was a kid back in the ’80s, and that doesn’t seem that long ago, right? (Right? Uh oh…)
So for those readers who are also just getting up to speed on this business: the Elf is a new iteration on that line from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” wherein Santa keeps an eye on whether you’ve been bad or good (so be good for goodness sake!). According to the 2004 book, Santa deploys crafty little “scout elves” to be his eyes on the outside, so he can concentrate on getting all of the toys ready for his special night out on the town. Each book comes with an elf doll who is placed by parents in a different place every day, to keep an eye on what the kids are up to.
If that seems a little creepy to you, you’re not the only one, but ultimately this tradition is about the kids. They love hunting for their pointy-hatted little pal all season long, and that’s why the Elf on the Shelf rapidly spread from being a novelty product to a must-have. There are endless roundups of Elf pictures online, some of them more tasteful than others, and everyone wants in on the fun.
What if you’re not a Christmas-celebrating family? Perhaps instead of an Elf, you might want to use a Mensch* as your lookout: dad and toy marketer Neal Hoffman created the Mensch on a Bench to give Jewish kids a similar tradition to enjoy. Like the Elf, the Mensch has his own book and his own rules for use, to “put more Funukkah in your Hanukkah!”
Ultimately, every family does their holidays a little differently, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box: this Babble blogger notes that there are tons of Elf knockoffs out there, and kids won’t care if they have the same Elf as everyone else (plus, the patented Elf can be difficult to pose). You can make your own Elf or Mensch, or create your own character (why not Mrs. Claus? Or Santa’s cat?), and create your own rules.
Just make sure it’s fun for everyone – and that includes you, so that you don’t wind up feeling like a Grinch by the time Christmas rolls around! If it feels like one more case of “holiday creep” or you feel too much pressure to make it all Pinterest-perfect, don’t bother. You’ll have your own traditions that kids will remember and value, and those are more than good enough!
* For our non-Jewish readers: “mensch” is a Yiddish word meaning “a good person.” It’s generally meant to be a bit stronger than that, though: a mensch is a truly exemplary person. So in the case of the Mensch on the Bench, he’s also a role model! As opposed to the Elf on the Shelf, who is not always the nicest guy.