The Elf Who Wasn’t There


(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.


  1. Well said.

    I too thought the Santa who sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake seemed a little stalker-ish. But this elf thingy is bizarre.

  2. Good thoughts, Andy! I admire your thoughtfulness..a person’s way of thinking has a tendency to change once they have kids…however, I grew up on the opposite side of this issue.My parents would NOT let us celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time because there is no record of the date of Jesus’ birth and so if a religious song was on the record my mom or dad would pick up the needle and we would not listen to the song nor were we allowed to participate in any Christmas program the had any reference to the birth of Jesus on Christmas…after all. the date was chosen because it was already being used by the pagans…now you may think that is a harsh way to raise a child, but that was the thinking of the day in the faith I grew up in,and Christmas was FUN for us..not just about the gifts but also about family and the year we gave our tree to a family who couldn’t afford one and instead of spending a lot of money on each other we bought gifts for them and just small gifts for each the love was there…just framed differently..I happen to love”Santa Claus is Coming to Town” because it brings back good memories for me..especially now that my dad is gone…we all have our memories and traditions we want to instill in our children for this time of year…I choose now to include BOTH views because it’s the ONE time of the year when the majority of people are looking towards God, so why not use the opportunity to reach out and witness God’s love!!! Sorry if I sounded preachy, just trying to give another point of view!! Oh, and Mandy, I think by the time you girls came along, mom and dad had mellowed quite a bit..we were listening to ALL the Christmas music by then …so whether you chose to make Christmas a religious holiday or a “secular” holiday or little of both I think good things can be taught to the children if the parents take the time…I am glad to see that you and Mandy ARE taking the time..Ralph and Betsy and any future children you may have will grow up with a rich tradition of love…that’s all that really matters!!! Merry Christmas!!

  3. Good stuff. One of my heroes from my youth was the Sandman who came every night and dusted my eyes. I had lots of imaginary friends as I was growing up, but I never could quite figure out Sandman because he wasn’t tied into my behavior other than whether I could get to sleep. I played like I was asleep lots of times so I could get a glimpse of him and that bag of sand. My sister told me one night that he wasn’t real, but for another year or so I kept thinking that the stuff on my eyes had to come from somewhere. I just couldn’t decide why the Sandman would want to do that to every kid in the world.

  4. Yes! Our kids are too young now to have even heard the “better not cry” message of Santa and I was slightly shocked when we walked past Santa at the mall and the lady who takes your money asked our 2 year old if she had been good this year. Ugh. I quickly informed her that she had and we moved on, but I’m really freshly aware that I don’t want Christmas to be about being good for Santa. Thanks for articulating it so well!

  5. Wonderful post. I confess I’ve approached the whole Santa he-knows-when-you-are-sleeping thing as a big joke, and without ever really thinking about it, expected my kids to as well. Of course we talk about Jesus and my kids know Christmas is really about Him. But you’ve offered an important perspective on grace, and I’ve realized I’ve missed an opportunity to talk about it with them in a way that will surely be more meaningful than me grinding out “Mommy is giving you grace by not hanging you up by your toes” when they’ve gone too far. So thanks for the stop-and-think moment. And Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  6. I used to think that it was a unique behavioral incentive around Christmas but I never really liked the Elf on the Shelf idea either. You mentioned briefly that what does it accomplish for good behavior the rest of the year? We try our very best that we can have fun with the Santa part of Christmas but to keep focus on the spiritual meaning of the holiday. Some people don’t like the idea of the kneeling Santa (it’s a Santa with his hat off kneeling before the baby Jesus in the manger) but I like it as the best way to incorporate both the secular and the spiritual parts of Christmas. It allows us to have the fun of Santa but to know his place in the holiday. As just a character of the season of giving. (by the way, my son just got into trouble for purposely breaking a Santa bank he got. Hehehe… His punishment is time out in his room, not presents under the tree being taken away)

  7. Man, I’m glad I don’t have kids yet. Now I’m going to have to figure out the underlying meanings of all those crazy Christmas songs. Can you deconstruct more of these songs so I don’t have to?

  8. I read this post while I was dealing my son’s lying (or more like fabricating an intricate alternate version of the truth) issues and the light bulb kind of went on. Why am I perpetuating the lie that is Santa Claus? So I told him and Rain the truth. About Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy too. And I was surprised how many people were shocked and a little angry that I would do such a thing! Seriously? I tell my kids the fat old man who gives presents based on behavior is a myth and I offend. I tell others that a loving God gave His Only Son not because of behavior is absolute truth and I offend.

    In any event, thank you for being an advocate of truth for my family.

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