The Real Reason We Didn’t Have An Elf on the Shelf

by Kathryn Leehane
Originally Published: 
A red-haired elf on the shelf with blue eyes, red hair, and a green hat

I’m no psychiatrist. No psychotherapist. I never earned that minor in psychology I strived for back in college.

But it doesn’t take much expertise to know that I frequently use humor as a coping mechanism. I deflect pain with laughter. I reframe sadness and discomfort in order to make it more palatable.

Take the Elf on the Shelf, for example. I make fun of it like so many other people. I pretend I don’t have time for it. Or that I’m too lazy for it. But that’s not true. (Okay, it’s a little bit true; I’m really fucking lazy.) The painful truth is that the Elf on the Shelf reminds me too much of an elf from my childhood. This one:

You see, growing up my brother and I used to play hide and seek with that elf every December. First, my brother would hide it in the living room. Then he’d sit in an oversized green velvet chair, gently tease me, and tell me if I was getting “hotter” or “colder” as I searched for the elf throughout the room. After I found it, we’d laugh together, and I’d take my turn in hiding the elf. As the years passed, the hiding spots become increasingly more difficult—and teasing and laughter more riotous.

We played that game over and over all holiday season long. Every year. We played it long past the time of “kids” games. It was our game. I looked forward to it every Christmas. I’d like to think he did too.

I say “did” because he’s gone now, lost to suicide a little over two years ago. So I can’t look at that elf without tears. Without a tightness in my chest and a shortness of my breath.

Because I wonder: was he harboring that deep, dark depression when we were playing the game? What did I miss? Did he ever think about our game in the Christmases that followed? The ones where he was alone? And then I can’t think about it anymore. I just can’t. So I make fun of that elf and push all of those painful thoughts aside.

This past weekend, however, my kids asked me for an elf, and everything changed. We were having a wonderful afternoon. We had just been to visit Santa. We had a lunch full of jokes and conversation. We did some shopping. We ended up in a toy store searching for a present for a friend when we came across the elf.

I walked quickly past the display, but both of my children stopped. My sweet and innocent kids—they have no idea what that elf does to me. To them it represents magic and fun and excitement—the same things it used to mean to me.

My son brought an elf over to me and asked, “Mom, can we get this?”

He looked at me so earnestly. So hopefully. I looked into his expectant eyes, and then I looked over to my daughter and saw the same eagerness in hers as well. I softened a little.

Then my brain flashed back to those Christmases with my brother. Those times I will never get back. The visceral reaction was immediate and overwhelming. I choked back a sob and could not respond.

“I’ll pay for it with my own money,” my son offered, and I finally yielded. I let down that wall, and I gave myself up to the pain. I told him of course I’d buy the elf for them. He didn’t have to pay for it.

But as I put the elf in my shopping cart, I gave the kids a different set of rules from those on the box, “You see, in our house, the elf works differently. In our house, you two take turns hiding him.”

I looked at my son, “One night, your sister will hide the elf, and you will find it in the morning. And then it will be your turn, and you will hide that elf for her to find. You can also play hide and seek with the elf during the day. That’s how it works in our house.”

Both kids happily agreed and spent the entire ride home naming our elf and deciding who got to hide her first. And they haven’t stopped playing with her.

As I listen to them giggling and playing together with that elf, I am reminded of that happy time with own brother—the time I will never get back but that I absolutely cherish … brother and sister playing simple games with a silly elf. A time of joy, magic, and love.

A Christmas tradition lives on.

Related post: Remembering The Uncle My Kids Will Never Know

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