It’s time. It’s a cold November morning and my toddler is losing it because her toy cell phone has stopped producing its mind-numbing sounds. I climb onto a chair and steady myself before opening the upper-cabinet doors and fish through the junk forgotten all the way up there. Finally I spot him — tattered hat, worn lanky appendages, and a small stain on his belly. His eyes are wide and he’s staring at me from the spot he’s been hidden in for the past eleven months. It’s my wonderful, exhausting, controversial felt-made friend — my Elf on the Shelf — and it’s almost time for his yearly debut. Here we freaking go.
I ordered him — his name is Felix — when my now nine-year-old was three, not fully realizing what I was committing to at the time. I was an excited new parent with boundless energy and a very exuberant love for the holidays. I enjoy crafty projects and creative outlets, so nothing sounded sweeter than creating magical miniature morning scenes for my little bundle of joy. But like everything in parenting, you live and you learn. And what I know now, six years and three more kids later, is that elf burnout is real. So if you are on the fence about whether or not to bring this tradition into your own home, there are a few things to consider.
First and foremost: competitive elf culture is real. Like everything else these days, some parents take their elf game to the next level and love to ‘gram about it. Oh, you thought frosting a couple Cheerios for your elf’s donut breakfast was award winning? Well, Jenny from down the street is about to create an intricate five-foot-wide spider web out of dental floss from which her elf is going to swing while saving Barbie from a paper-mache building. Point is you have two choices: play hard, sell out, and spend hours on your elf creations, or have the confidence and self assurance to know that throwing him alone on the mantle cross-legged is more than enough.
You must also know that the elf debate is heated. I sincerely thought I was purchasing a fun little holiday accessory all those years ago, but friends, co-workers, and neighbors will have big opinions on this little guy. Arguments will arise regarding discipline strategies, the ethics of bribery, materialism, and other dramatic things that will make your head spin. When asked, “Do you Elf?” you better know your audience, and answer wisely.
And the elf is a commitment. Once you elf, there ain’t no going back. You are moving that sucker for all the days leading up to Christmas. And let me tell you, while week one might be filled with homemade elf clothes and cute little notes, you will be waking up in a full sweat by morning twenty-one, racing your first grader down the stairs and pulling a hamstring to quickly pivot Buddy from the windowsill to the tree branch before she notices. On morning twenty-three you won’t be quick enough, and you will have to come up with a quick story about temporary elf paralysis, fake call the North Pole hospital, sprinkle a little glitter from the craft drawer and pray you didn’t blow your own cover. And for those of you who think-twenty five days (give or take) isn’t much of a commitment — times that by the amount of years until your youngest is a non-believer. For me, that’s looking like thirteen. That’s a lot of creative elf moving for one lifetime.
But despite all of it — the over-the-top expectations, the drama, and the burnout — I wouldn’t change a thing. I would elf on the shelf every year forever if I could. Because life is noisy, complicated, and high stakes, and so when I have an opportunity to create simple magic and happiness for my kids while they are little enough to buy into it, I do it. Sometimes it’s ugly and it’s definitely never perfect, but I think it’s still great.
So here’s to another season of non-Pinterest-worthy elfing — nothing glamorous, likely pretty annoying, but always worth it.
Samm is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot. Find her on Instagram @sammbdavidson.