“Santa’s Ambassador” Carol Aebersold visited Maine families Dec. 3-4 to answer one question: “How exactly does Santa Claus know who’s naughty or nice?”
Aebersold, co-author of the popular holiday book “The Elf on the Shelf,” set up shop in bookstores in Bangor, Augusta and Portland to talk to people about scout elves, the eyes and ears of Mr. Claus.
These holiday helpers, sent from the North Pole, enter homes to watch families, taking in every good deed and naughty act. The elf will always listen and relay messages back to Santa, flying to the North Pole each night and returning to its assigned home by sunrise. That is why, each morning, the scout elf is found in a new spot. But children must remember that this wee house guest can’t be touched, or else they might lose their magic.
“My children actually send a Christmas letter to Santa that way, by giving it to the elf,” said Brewer resident Julie Milan, after meeting Aebersold at the book signing and reading event at Books-A-Million in Bangor on Dec. 4.
A few years ago, Julie and Charles Milan began reading “The Elf on the Shelf” to their children, Hope, now 7 years old, and Henry, now 6, after receiving the book and accompanying elf as a present. Now, both children keep their own elf and around the holidays it has become a tradition for them to search for the elves each morning.
“They each have a wreath hanging on their bedroom doors — so today, the elves were sitting in the wreaths,” said Julie Milan. “But they have many different places they land. It adds such a nice new element to the Christmas season.
“The Elf on the Shelf” is based on a family tradition that Carol Aebersold enjoyed as a child and passed on to her twin daughters, Christa Pitts and Chanda Bell. In 2005, Aebersold and Bell collaborated to create the bestselling book, “The Elf on the Shelf,” which they self-published after rejections from several publishing houses.
The Georgian family has now sold more than 2.5 million copies, the first thousand of which were sold out of the trunk of their car. The company has seven licenses, including Build-a-Bear and Hallmark, and last year, they debuted their animated feature “An Elf’s Story” on CBS. The movie is scheduled to air this year on Dec. 14.
Q & A with Carol Aebersold
BDN: What are the origins of the tradition of the “scout elves” being the eyes and ears of Santa?
Aebersold: I had a scout elf when I was a child, and from what I understand, the whole ancient tradition must have originated in the Scandinavian countries. My grandmother did have a Norwegian heritage. That’s the most that I remember. And we just put it into a book form. I had empty nest syndrome at the time, and Chanda was over at the house and I was asking her, “What am I supposed to do now? You know. You all are grown. I’ve made all the costumes and done all the field trips and chaperoning and everything.” And she looked up on a shelf in my kitchen and she said, “Mom, we should write a book and tell our elf tradition to the world.” And I said, “Oh Chanda, I don’t think anybody would … OK.” And then we started.
BDN: It’s strange that your idea was rejected by publishers at first, considering how popular it is with families today. Do you have any advice for authors who are struggling to get their ideas out there?
Aebersold: I would say just believe in yourself and in your property and, you know, it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work, but you just have to keep being dogged about it. It may take years and years, but if it’s a true passion of yours, you need to hang onto it.
BDN: Do you have any concerns about what children might think when they see the Scout Elf on shelves in stores rather than on their shelves at home?
Aebersold: Well, if they know the real tradition, [the elves] don’t get their Christmas magic until they get adopted into a family and named. So that’s how they can be in a store. You know, Santa sends the elves, and they’re gracious enough to just hibernate until they’re adopted into a family. And then, once they’re given their name, that’s when they get their Christmas magic.
BDN: This year, the Scout Elf became the first character from a self-published book to make it into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since Peter Rabbit in 1901. How did the Scout Elf receive this recognition?
Aebersold: You know, I think it was just a mutual thing. The Macy’s people came to us and wanted to carry our product, and we’d been talking for a few years about it. And I don’t know who actually suggested that we be in the parade, but I will say that when we very first started out, one of the big dreams we had was, “If there was anything you could have connected with this book, what would it be?” And we said, “Oh, we’d have a balloon in the Macy’s parade.” That was the wildest dream we could come up with. And so at first, Macy’s thought maybe we should do a float, and the more that they talked among themselves, they said, “No this should be a balloon. I mean, it flies.” So it was a perfect match.
BDN: What is it like to be in Christmas mode year-round? Does it make this time of year any less special for you?
Aebersold: Absolutely not. It’s just exciting. We do have Christmas every day, which some children wish that they could have. Our office is decorated with trees. It’s a Christmas atmosphere. And we do it because we work for Santa, and he works all year long, and so do we. We love it. But it doesn’t make the actual christmas season any less exciting because we see the kids’ faces and we hear the parents and the grandparents, and that’s what Christmas is all about. As it says in the movie, “Christmas is something you carry in your heart,” and we get to see the benefits of that.
BDN: On book tours, you must meet a lot of parents who really appreciate and enjoy your story. What is one conversation you’ve had with a parent that has really stuck out to you?
Aebersold: We have heard many memorable stories. Some of them are very funny. Some of them are poignant. We have heard from teachers how “The Elf on the Shelf” has broken up fights on the playground and things. But it’s really heartwarming to me that a lot of older people will come and just break down in tears because it brings back happy memories of their childhood and their grandmother or great grandmother had these little elves and how fun it was … I knew there was a father who had passed away, or he was the grandfather now, and so they named their elf “Henry” after him — because he was out looking after them. So it has touched a lot of families in a lot of different ways.
BDN: What about a memorable conversation with a child?
Aebersold: Oh yes. They love the elf and they love to talk to it. They have questions like, “Is it real?” or “Are you Mrs. Claus?” Incognito, you know, thinking I’m Mrs. Claus perhaps. They have stories of funny places where they’ve found their elves. One funny place was in the cereal box. And since you’re not supposed to touch their elf, they had a brilliant idea, got the salad tongs and extricated him and went ahead and had their breakfast. Mostly it’s just fun places where they’ve found the elves. Sometimes they’ve seen him taking a bath in marshmallows or a variety of little mischievous things like that.
BDN: It sounds like you’ve always made Christmas a magical time for your family, and now for families across the country. Do you have any suggestions for parents on how they can make the holiday even more magical for their children and themselves?
Aebersold: I think if its magical for the children, it is pretty magical for you — if you’re one of those parents who really gets into things like that. Just find family traditions and stick to them. It gives children a sense of security and it’s always fun. You know, it’s like any tradition; it’s the way you do it, the way you repeat it. And our tradition is one that’s flexible enough to adapt to any family. Santa, being the gentleman that he is, if you have a family that’s full of fun and pranksters, he’ll send an elf will more likely have a little bit more of a personality like that. But if you’re from a very sedate and quiet family, he’ll send a quiet elf to your house. You have to adapt the tradition to what works best for your family.
BDN: What started as a book has turned into an empire with a short movie, activity books, a book with sounds, a website — what’s next?
Aebersold: Well there are things planned, but you know, we have to go by Santa’s laws, just like the elves do. So it’ll be next year before those announcements are made. Only Santa knows for sure.
BDN: So what’s new this year, then?
Aebersold: This year, Santa has allowed the girl scout elves to come out. He wasn’t so sure if this was a good idea at first when we approached him with it, so first he sent the boys, but they all came back with good stories, so now he’s letting the girl come out. We have the traditional snowflake-trimmed skirt for the girls, but each year there will also be a Claus couture designer skirt for the well-dressed female elf. We have some figurines that are based on the movie. We have a coloring book. We have an easy reader called “Chippy’s Big Adventure.” And we have an easy to read book with sound. So those are some of the new things that have come out this year. Plus, we’ve been able to license with people like Pottery Barn. There were Elf on the Shelf pajamas. We’ve had a lot of fun with different things. And sheets and duvet covers and just a wide variety of Elf on the Shelf things.
To learn about Elf on the Shelf and explore their online version of Santa’s North Pole home, visit elfontheshelf.com. To share holiday memories online, visit northpoleplayground.com, which includes a teacher’s portal with lesson plans and class activities.