I’m not a fan of the holiday season. Did I mention that already? I think I might have.
You can go on and on about getting the spirit of the season wrong, about the commercialization, about whatever irks you. People do that, and I get it. I do it too – I mean, don’t get me STARTED on the use of LED lights for holiday displays. But seriously, there’s always something that isn’t like it used to be, something that seems to take cherished traditions and bend them almost beyond recognition. Usually when I get unsettled by something like that, I imagine what Alcott’s Little Women would say of our modern holidays. Or I envision grumpy older Germans wondering how to put all those little lights on their Christmas trees, asking why one would even DO that when there is an entire drawer full of perfectly serviceable candles to adorn the tree with.
But today I’m having my Grumpy German moment about, of all things, elves.
(Side note: remember to ask Mom whether we have any German ancestry I can claim, or whether this has been a wholesale cultural appropriation on my part)
In recent years, Elf on the Shelf has become a new Christmas tradition. People all over have bought the book, and the weird little elf doll, and proceeded to have all manner of fun with it, from the adorable to the naughty.
It’s funny, it’s lighthearted, and it’s a novel way to remind children to be on their best behavior at the holiday season. So of course, some professor had to try to ruin it.
“The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon,” Pinto wrote in a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “In doing so, it contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.”
If the children are the subjects, then Santa is Big Brother, and his elves are the Ministry of Truth. Pinto’s concern with the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is that the children see the surveillance not as play, but instead accept it as real.
My evens are utterly incapable…
Look, I’m all kinds of opposed to the Surveillance State, and have been since I saw Will Smith battle it in Enemy of the State all those years ago. Nobody had to sell me on the dangers of the NSA; I got there all on my own (well, with a little help from Hollywood). We should definitely avoid conditioning our children to accept perpetual electronic supervision. But this professor gets this so wrong, so miserably, spectacularly wrong, that I can’t help but respond.
Let me take you back to my own childhood…
It’s early December, on a Saturday morning. In our house, Saturday mornings are for cartoons, for heaping bowls of cereal, for making messes and generally getting underfoot as our parents try to wind down from a busy week. But this is December. School isn’t out for the Christmas break yet, that’s not for a few weeks, but we feel it, we SMELL it in the air. We can count to 25, and we know just how many days until Santa comes, exactly how many days we have to wait. Christmas cards have started to come in the mail, bearing festive holiday stamps. Dad has climbed up on our oddly-shaped roof and defied death (or serious bodily injury anyway) to hang beautiful lights from one end to the other. He’s also dragged all the ornaments down from the attic, which Mom has unwrapped and laid out so we can decorate the fragrant live tree he’s brought home, strapped to the roof of his car. With every new reminder that Christmas is coming, we get more excited, more worked up, more liable to lose control. How is a kid supposed to keep it together when every day there are a dozen new temptations and enticements? How are parents supposed to maintain the joy of the season as they are constantly on the lookout for meltdowns and disasters just waiting to happen?
To a seven-year-old, all this run-up to Christmas is magic. The entire month of December, and everything in it, conspires to hype up little ones with anticipation, with wonder, with awe. You couldn’t ‘turn off’ all the little reminders that Christmas is coming, even if you wanted to; there’s no way to block them all out.
My parents were very wise people, and they understood this quite well. They knew how difficult it was to be a kid, trying so hard to be on one’s best behavior, and being overcome so often, being overwhelmed daily with the excitement of the holiday season. They also knew how much less peaceful a holiday season at home could be when overwrought children gave into their impulses, and how having to impose discipline on them could exhaust all involved parties.
So this is what they did.
They obtained (from Santa) a set of elves. These elves, five or six in number and dressed in different-colored coats and matching knit caps, looked just like ceramic dwarf statuettes. And as soon as Thanksgiving had ended, the elves would make an appearance in our house, one at a time.
The first would be discovered by my sister or me one afternoon, perched atop a light fixture or in the window above the kitchen sink. It was the official start of the Christmas season for us, and a new one appeared each day thereafter until all were in residence. Then the competition began – we would each wake up and try to find all the elves in all of their new hiding places before the other one did. Our parents explained what the elves were doing, and the rules we must follow: they were there to report back to Santa on our behavior, and we must never touch them or try to move them, or they would disappear.
And we loved it. We loved finding elves in the refrigerator (in case we tried to sneak snacks), on our bedroom shelves (in case we tried to stay up late), and on the bathroom counter (in case we tried to fudge at brushing our teeth). We caught them hiding in the ropes of Mom’s wall hanging, perched atop the tall dining room bookshelf, nestled in the Christmas tree, camping under the coffee table, even lying about on the spiral staircase. Each morning, we’d search until the last one was found in his new post, shouting as we found them (the shouting DID tend to decrease the peace in the home, but only for the brief time it took us to find them all) and we’d remember the need to behave very well each time we saw one.
Wait, you might say, all this merely added to the excitement already brewing in December, didn’t it? Didn’t it make things WORSE?
No, and here’s why. What the elves taught us was not to accept the Surveillance State at all. What they taught us was how to practice our own self-control. We were responsible for remembering to behave, but those elves were a visible reminder. By keeping the consequences in mind each time we noticed an elf, WE had the ability to exercise discipline on our own, requiring less of it from our parents. We might remember to bring our cereal bowl back to the kitchen and rinse it. We might remember to brush our teeth or put our clothes away without our parents having to remind us over and over again.
Okay, they still DID have to remind us, but those elves were a big help at cutting down the number of times needed to remind us. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it helped create a more peaceable home for all of us than otherwise would have existed. I mean, I was hyperactive and my sister was the worst, so you can imagine how much my parents appreciated having an assist from Santa’s elves.
Self-discipline is about making choices based on understanding the consequences and weighing the options. It’s a habit one needs to develop, not a gift one is either born with or without. And the elves we grew up with were a great way to give us a moment to pause before we took an action, a way to give us time to consider what we wanted to do before we did it. It made us more thoughtful about our behavior in a month in which we were constantly assaulted with stimuli that could have made my parents’ lives insane. It made me, ever the impulsive one, better at reining in those impulses, and pausing to think about others instead of merely myself. It didn’t help my little sister much, but you can’t have everything.
Okay, just kidding, she’s actually not the worst.
Seriously, as ridiculous as people have gotten over Elf on the Shelf, the concept is sound, and really CAN promote self-control and peace in the home. College professors worried about the Surveillance State are probably better off spending time dealing with the constant and vicious assault on the First Amendment on their campuses, and leaving the elvery to people who know what they’re doing.
And finally, I just wanted to take a moment and appreciate my parents for their cleverness in coming up with this DECADES ahead of the trend.
Even if they didn’t market the crap out of it and make us all rich years ago. At least they got more peaceful holidays out of it.