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Elf on the Shelf: the latest in a long line of Christmas creepiness

There is something NSA and drone-surveillance about that not-to-be-touched Elf on the Shelf as it peers each day from different places in the house.

Is it OK to admit that “Elf on the Shelf” gives me the creeps?

Jane Ahlin
Courtesy of Jane Ahlin
Jane Ahlin

Not that I ever was bothered by Santa knowing whether I’d been naughty or nice, or, for that matter, by the threat of a lump of coal instead of presents. The kids I played with when I was a child were pretty certain Santa was neither petty nor spiteful when it came to minor slipups. For instance, if your brother snapped you with a wet dishtowel when you were washing and he supposedly was drying the supper dishes, Santa wasn’t going to freak out if you retaliated by hiding your brother’s marbles — including his steelies — between the mattress and box springs of his bed.

The point is, I don’t think I’m overly sensitive about Santa’s list. Still, there is something NSA and drone-surveillance about that not-to-be-touched Elf on the Shelf as it peers each day from different places in the house. Much like Canadian professor Laura Pinto, who co-authored an article on the subject for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, I’ve wondered whether children who “grow up thinking it’s cool for the elves to watch [them] and report back to Santa,” will later find it acceptable “for the NSA to watch [them] and report back to the government.

Is the adorable Elf nothing more than a Trojan horse, “set[ing] children up for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures”?

Maybe I just need more eggnog. 

It’s not as if this is the first generation of adults to have problems with messages children might take from the hoopla around Santa. Looking back at the time when I grew up, the all-seeing, all-knowing Santa bore a discomfiting similarity to the Sunday school version of Old Testament God. Naughty and sinful were pretty hard to differentiate. Popular songs, such as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” didn’t help. (“He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good ….”)

That grand old cowboy singer Gene Autry really messed with kids’ minds. Remembered for being first to sing, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” Autry wrote and recorded a Santa song that was a big hit in the ’50s called “Here Comes Santa Claus”:

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, Right down Santa Claus lane.

 He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor; he loves you just the same. 

 Santa knows we’re all God’s children; that makes everything right.

 So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer, ‘cause Santa Claus comes tonight …. 

 Peace on earth will come to all if we just follow the light.

 So let’s give thanks to the Lord above that Santa Claus comes tonight.

No wonder the “commercialization of Christmas” became the adult concern for children in the 1950s and 1960s, a concern quite different from that of the late 1800s when the adult worry was childhood skepticism and disbelief. In 1897 a newspaper editor penned the famous reply, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” to the letter of an unconvinced girl. 

In today’s world the adult worry of a commercialized Christmas has morphed into a political “War on Christmas.” The right thinks Christians are discriminated against and decrees a pox on your house if you say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And the left? Well, much as it pains me to say so, the left sees Elf on the Shelf and thinks NSA. 

When it comes to Santa and his trappings, children are so much smarter than adults. Magic is magic: mysterious, thrilling, enchanting. The first Christmas our oldest child was aware of Santa, with eyes shining she told how he would come down the chimney, have his milk and cookies, and leave presents behind the door. (Behind the door?)

Made no sense to my husband and me, but doggoned if that wasn’t exactly what Santa did.  

A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by ALAN BELISLE on 12/24/2014 - 10:17 am.


    What is the true spirit of Christmas? Let’s start with the non-stop sales pitches starting BEFORE Thanksgiving. Wrap that up in the constant din of (mostly Christian) songs about Christmas. Follow that with a steady diet of schmaltzy Christmas stories on TV. Then there are the huge crowds, whipped into a shopping frenzy by all of the above, that glut the stores, malls, and highways. All of whom are spouting “Merry Christmas” to friends and strangers alike. So don’t try to tell me that there is a war on Christmas. If there ever was, Christmas won it, occupied us, imposed it’s regime, and drove the resistance underground. If the right wingers are going to cry because I say “Happy Solstice” in reply to their “Merry Christmas”, well that’s just too damn bad.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/24/2014 - 12:57 pm.

    Christmas vs Xmas

    Personally, I prefer the South Park pilot episode of Santa vs Jesus to the other Christmas stories. Who will win the battle? The armies of religion or toys?

    Good times!

    Yesterday I was chatting with an acquaintance who runs a newspaper out in Idaho. She posted “happy holidays” on her company web site because she wants to be inclusive to people of all religions or none. And boy, did she ever get the hate mail from people who perceive this as a blow against religion! I told her they would really truly be offended if I, an atheist, waded in on how all religions are a made-up construct and Christmas is just a co-op of the pagan winter solstice holiday. She wouldn’t give me her credentials to upload new pages to her site, so I’ll have to be content with MinnPost instead.

  3. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 12/24/2014 - 08:46 pm.

    I am a Nichiren Buddhist

    I also live among about 3,500 Muslims at Riverside Plaza. Instead of crying out Merry Christmas to this group, I ask the kids and adults how the school holiday is going, and finish with, “Well, Happy Holidays!” It also is the final night of Hanukkah as I write, so if I even have a hint that someone may have a typically Jewish name, I offer them Happy Hanukkah. To many, I offer Merry Christmas.

    I also receive Merry Christmas from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends.

    To those who believe they are “right” wingers who have a problem with Happy Holidays, I say, find a therapist or shut up. Be civil. If you’re truly a Christian, you shouldn’t mind being civil and loving. See 1 Corinthians 13 NIV for the definition of love in modern English. It’s in the New Testament near Romans. You can Google the two or three paragraphs on the Internet. It’s really easy, and God will love you if you become more loving. Paul wrote it.

    Friendly sarcasm aside, my religion is based on the final teaching (sutra, in Sanskrit) of Shakyamuni Buddha, (AKA, Siddhartha; AKA Guatum (sp).

    See www (dot)sgi(dot)org to learn about my Buddhism.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 12/29/2014 - 09:11 am.


    The elf on the shelf is nothing more than a marketing campaign that people bought into. I’ve heard that it is called a Christmas tradition. That’s a load of bs since it wasn’t around at all 10 or more years ago at all. This is simply something marketed in the past 5 years to bilk parents out of another $40 each year.

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