February 25, 2020
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No to ‘Elf on the Shelf’: Christmas shouldn’t be an extension of our surveillance culture

Elf on the Shelf is a holiday tradition that is not welcome in my home.

Creating a tradition around inviting a sweet-faced spy to keep tabs on our daughter, further perpetuating the very worst part of the Santa Claus myth, is particularly problematic in this era of overreach on the part of surveillance agencies. I know, I know, it’s just in good fun. But it’s creepy, and it sends a weird message to children. No, thanks.

Elf on the Shelf” is a Christmas book by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. It’s about a minion of Santa who spies on children. No worries there. “Jumanji” is a book about a board game that tries to kill kids, but it is just a story so no harm is done by sharing it. “Elf on the Shelf,” however, comes with a stuffed representation of the titular pixie that parents can use as a prop in the psychological bullying campaigns they gleefully wage against their children.

The second after the Thanksgiving dishes were put away, you probably started seeing friends on Facebook sharing pictures of the elf in its various stakeout locations. That’s part of the tradition, by the way. You move the elf around while the child sleeps and pretend the elf moved on its own.

“Oh, Elf must have thought the refrigerator was a better place from which to watch your every move. How’d you sleep, sweetie?”

Hilariously and accurately, Huffington Post blogger Erica Ford draws a parallel between Elf on the Shelf and another famous doll that took America by storm in the 1980s, Chucky of the Child’s Play slasher movie franchise.

Like Elf, Chucky also moved around and watched kids’ every move. Ford suggests the movement is an indication of boredom, which I think is right. Not only are we paying for and welcoming this creeper into our homes; we are engaging with it daily for up to a month. Imagine engagement of this sort outside the holiday season.

“It looks like Barbie moved into your bed so she could get a better sense of you, babe. Barbie is watching you.”

Criticism of Elf on the Shelf is as old as the phenomenon itself, though outcry is growing along with the phenomenon. But Elf is now represented by a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Santa’s eyes in the sky), so it’s probably not going anywhere soon.

I throw my voice into the mix this year because Elf recently tried to weasel his way into our home. He got to our 5-year-old daughter through the peer and extended family grapevine, then used his cute face and posturing as if he represents an actual holiday tradition to persuade her into asking us if we could invite him into our house. We politely declined.

Parents use Elf, we explained to her, to scare their children into good behavior, and that is not a very nice thing to do. We know that you make good choices because you are smart and thoughtful, and you learn from your mistakes. Let’s stick to our stockings, lights, reindeer statuettes and our other generic holiday decorations for now. And that was that.

It’s not simply the creepiness that gets to me. After all, Santa already “knows when you’ve been sleeping” and he “knows when you’re awake.” (We find that troubling enough, and we don’t employ any of that mythology in our household.) Having been molded by this age of NSA overreach, Snowden, Wikileaks and Anonymous, what bothers me most is that inviting Elf on the Shelf into the home unnecessarily extends surveillance culture into a place that should be free of it. Santa Claus is a myth that at best represents generosity at its finest. But with the elf, we choose to emphasize his surveillance. That is really weird.

As far as seasonal frights for children go, I prefer Krampus. The half-goat, half-demon beast has roots in Germanic folklore. He puts bad kids into a sack and takes them to his lair.

Of course, Krampus isn’t welcome in our home, either, but I like that he is decidedly bad. There is something nefarious about a sweet-faced agent who spies on children as a means of keeping them in line. And there is something even more problematic about creating a tradition out of it, making light of it and welcoming it into our homes. Then again, it’s a fitting metaphor for our relationship with surveillance, which we seem to welcome without question as an antidote to what we are told ails us.

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager and is a former candidate for the Legislature. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.

 


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