Make It Stop

Say Hello To The Real Rules Of Elf On The Shelf

Your step-by-step guide to the season’s most relentless task.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Perhaps you’ve heard whispering (OK, grumbling) among fellow parents about an elf, or a shelf, or something, and you’re wondering what any of it means. Great news! We are happy to explain. The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a beloved book from 2005 that tells the story of an elf who shows up each day of the holiday season, spying on kids to report back to Santa. (You know, for making-a-list-and-checking-it-twice purposes.)

Except the elf doesn’t stick to the shelf — he shows up in all kinds of funny, unexpected places, each more creative than the last. It's a monthlong tradition (seriously, you’re supposed to start in late November and keep going until Christmas) that’s delighted many a yule-celebrating child and made countless parents wonder why the hell they bothered.

Ready to learn the rules of this time-honored, time-sucking tradition? Dive right in.

1. Buy into the lore.

The elf is, unlike his big-boned boss, totally OK with being seen by children, and that’s the whole point. Each day, the elf is to be discovered by the kids in a new location and/or position, giving rise to thousands of cheeky, Pinterest-y variations on the theme. You can have him greet your kids at the sink one morning and the toilet the next. What fun!

2. You must name the elf.

Ideally something Christmas-y. Noel, perhaps, or, for a more formal twist, Mr. O’Tanenbaum.

3. Kids aren’t allowed to touch the elf.

Why? He loses his power or something. (To fly back and forth to the North Pole? But wouldn’t that be a potential advantage, since you can be really naughty and Santa will never know?)

4. If they do accidentally touch the elf, all is not lost.

All they have to do is write an apology to Santa (seems a tad punitive, but OK), sprinkle cinnamon near the elf (guess who gets to clean that up), or sing a Christmas carol (yeah, that’s not going to get old).

5. Positioning the elf in a straightforward, non-creative manner is simply not done.

You think you can just prop the thing on the coffee table and call it a day? You think this is a game? You want your kids to have a good Christmas — hell, a good childhood? Start strategizing.

6. It’s crucial that you forget to think about any of this until the last second.

Typically, this will all occur to you the night your child asks, “Hey, when does the Elf on the Shelf show up? Is he coming soon?” and you realize it’s already December 4th or whatever.

7. Make sure to descend into anxiety, forgetfulness, and/or irritation each night for a solid month.

Did you already do the toilet paper one last year — or maybe the year before? Will they even remember? If they do remember, will the whole Elf/Santa jig be up, thus destroying their fragile innocence? Also: What the hell gets tape goo off a stainless-steel fridge?

8. When finding new scenarios for your elf, ensure that none of the needed materials are on hand.

Hey, that Taco Tuesday one would be a slam dunk… except you’re out of tortillas. This “Aw, he shat in a wine glass” idea is cute… but you already ate all the Hershey’s Kisses in your kid’s Halloween stash. Bonus points for a midnight 7-11 run!

9. Wonder frequently whether your kids even care.

Each morning, analyze their facial expressions for signs of waning wonderment. Are they over this? Am I doing all this for nothing? These are the kinds of thoughts you want to be having when you have glitter stuck under your fingernails.

10. Give in and do the damn thing year after year anyway.

Why? Because you know that even with all the exhausting to-do, the countless evenings when you just want to down an edible and go the F to bed, your kids will absolutely remember these shenanigans. Someday, they’ll even know and appreciate that it was you who made them happen — and will be inspired to stupidly carry on the tradition with their own kids.