One of Santa’s elves lives in our home for about a month each year. He’s 8 inches tall, wears red and white-striped overalls and has a bell on his hat. He’s at least 40 years old.
This elf once lived in the house where I grew up. My Mom says she’s not sure how or when he first came to visit, but he has a clear purpose. The elf’s job is to keep a close eye on everyone in the household during the month before Christmas and report back to Santa if we’re being naughty or nice.
For most of the year, our elf lives at Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Then, at some point after Thanksgiving, he magically appears in a beat-up cardboard box in our basement marked “Xmas.” He used to appear in Mom’s basement, but clearly he’s felt the need to continue to keep an eye on me.
This year, as we were decorating the Fraser fir that did not magically appear in our living room, my girl asked, “Mom, where’s the elf?”
“I’m not sure if he’s back yet,” I said. “I’ll go look.”
Sadly, it took me a couple of days to venture back into the radon-laden, dust-filled morass of unwanted items that is our basement. Eventually, I found the box of random, holiday-related decorations, including three snowmen displaying the letters “N” “L” and “E.” There once was a fourth snowman that was in charge of the letter “O.” Now we’re stuck with snowmen displaying the words “LEN” or “NEL.” (If you know anyone named “LEN” or “NEL” with one “L,” let me know.)
I finally found our elf in the box, dusted him off, then propped him on a bookshelf in the living room. He truly is magic. The number and intensity of kid fights taking place in the living room has decreased significantly. I watch my two as they start to get into it with each other, then one pauses and glances at the elf. “The elf’s gonna tell Santa on us,” they’ll whisper. At which point, they slink off into the kitchen to fight.
So now I’m trying to come up with a way to control my kids’ behavior outside of the living room. We were in the car this morning when the kids started picking on each other.
“The elf is going to tell Santa that you’re fighting,” I say.
“Mom, the elf can’t see us,” says my girl.
“Yes, he can. He’s magic,” says my boy.
“That’s right. He’s magic. He can see you wherever you are. And report back to the fat, bearded guy,” I say.
My girl sighs. At 9, she’s not sure whether the elf can see her when she’s not in his presence, but she’s at that stage where she’s scared to question the logic sparking through her developing pre-frontal lobe. She knows that if she chases her doubts down the path of reason, she might find some answers she doesn’t like. She’s not ready to go there. Which is fine with me. Whatever she believes, I want the threat of the elf to continue to be effective. Wherever we are.
Then the conversation continues.
“Do you think we just lost a present?” asks my girl, sensing the reality of who might be chalking up the naughty or nice board.
“I don’t know. That’s up to Santa,” I say.
“Well, maybe if we turn it around and behave really well between now and Christmas, Santa will bring us lots of presents,” she says.
“How about a present?” I say.
“Three? Or maybe two?” she says.
I realize we’re negotiating. Luckily, my boy chimes in. He’s been in the back seat thinking hard about how the heck the elf talks to Santa. Is it ESP? Does he have a cell phone hidden under his cap? A walkie-talkie? Does he transport to the North Pole while we’re asleep?
I say that I think the wooden reindeer on the front porch fly the elf to the North Pole every night so he can update Santa on our household’s behavior. And help make toys.
After a long pause, my boy says, “I hope the elf doesn’t fall off the reindeer and get hurt and then not come back.”
I wonder if he truly hopes that or if he’s thinking life would be a little easier without the elf around. Already, I dread returning the elf to his dark box, but I know that his influence is limited by the proximity of presents.
For now, the elf rules. When we get home, I kiss his little plastic nose and whisper, “Thank you,” into his pointy elf ear.
P.S.—Literally the day I finished writing this column, I received a package from the North Pole, via my mom, which contains a new kids’ book called Elf on the Shelf. An elf accompanied the book. He looks a bit like our elf, although he’s clearly not as old and wise or as nattily dressed. The book was written by a mother-daughter team, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, based on their family tradition. I e-mailed the authors via their Web site about my family tradition, and we agreed that it is a small world. Think my next column could be fodder for a kids’ book?