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(Hi everyone. This is Andy, Mandy’s husband, and she’s allowed me to guest post today.)

There’s a song we don’t sing in our household around Christmas. “You better watch out, you better not cry.” Before having kids, I thought that was a slightly weird song. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.” But now that I’ve got two kids and they’re looking to me to set the tone for Christmas, this song is out. Change-the-radio-station forbidden in our house. We celebrate Christmas as a time where we recognize that Jesus, in some mysterious, ineffable way, is a gift, completely undeserved and unmerited. We celebrate that by participating in the joy of giving gifts to one another. There’s no watching out needed, no need for crying or pouting. Our Santa is more like Saint Nicholas of old than the hyper-organized list-maker of this song.

But now that categorizing fat man is at it again. This time, with elves.

The Elf on the Shelf, if you don’t know, is a creepy little minion of Santa’s who appears somewhere in your house by day to spy on your kids and then disappears to the North Pole every night to report on each child’s naughtiness or niceness. “The Elf on the Shelf is watching you,” the song goes, completely oblivious to the irony of its cheerful melody, “what you say and what you do.”

Think Gestapo for kids.

And at first, I thought I could ignore it. That if I never tried to find the elf, I could turn his sneaky game of hide-and-seek against him and not have to worry about his toxic effect on Christmas. But it was not to be.

They are everywhere.

And that’s when I realized: this isn’t going away. I have to make a stand. Because the Elf on the Shelf represents everything I don’t want to be as a parent. The Elf on the Shelf stands behind me and says “do what he says, or else!” like some two-bit mobster. The Elf on the Shelf teaches kids that when you screw up, you get nothing, and when you do nice things, you get big, unnecessary presents.

In an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the goal of Christmas is getting stuff. Life is about pleasing a selectively omnipotent being in order to reap a reward of superfluous gifts. Who is this discerning benefactor, you ask? The younger kids think it’s Santa; in other words, God. The older kids know that it’s you. Is that how you want your kids to view you? You’re only there to give them good things when they deserve them? You’ll gladly ruin their holiday if their behavior passes a certain arbitrary ratio of naughty to nice? They can have whatever they want as long as first you get what you want?

Then of course you’ll take down the elf after Christmas. And so now—is there anyone watching? Now that the gifts are opened, what’s in it for me?

But in the real world, my kids could do nothing to keep me from loving them. I dare them to find a way for me to stop loving them. Because it will never, ever happen. And I love giving them gifts. I love lavishing upon them ridiculous amounts of toys and games and food and hugs and love. If they punch each other or scream too loud in the meantime, that’s not going to change how much I love to give them good things.

In the real world, this is Advent season, a season about expectation, the expectation of grace, not the expectation of merited favor. Christmas is about God pouring out unexpected and lavish grace upon the least deserving among us. About a surprising and upside-down gospel that takes everything you thought about merit and favor and riches and wealth and turns it on its head.

But in an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the angels show up to the shepherds only to sit up on the Milky Way and say “The angels in the stars are watching you, what you say and what you do—and God won’t send a Savior if you’re on the naughty list.”

Love, the Scriptures tell us, keeps no record of wrongs.

The Elf on the Shelf’s job is to keep a record of wrongs.

We have an Elf on the Shelf in our house, but he’s blindfolded, to remind our kids that nothing they can do will keep us from the joy we have when we give them good things at Christmas. And more importantly, nothing any of us might do will keep us from the joy of giving gifts to each other. Because it’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.