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The Elf On a Shelf: Origins Of a New Tradition

Updated November 26, 2021
The Elf On a Shelf: Origins Of a New Tradition

The history of most Christmas traditions counts centuries; the Elf on a Shelf tradition, meanwhile, only counts decades.

Originating as a family legend, the Elf on a Shelf transformed into a nationwide tradition in the span of a few years.

While some parents see the Elf on a Shelf as a great helper in surveilling their kids’ behavior, others consider it creepy and sending a wrong message.

Children, however, tend to like the cute smiling elves, pushing hundreds of thousands of parents to buy them every year. Only in four years, the Elf on a Shelf sales reached 10 million pieces.

Thanks to the power of mass media, the Elf on a Shelf even acquired a humorous counterpart, a Jewish doll called the Mensch on the Bench.

Where Does Elf on a Shelf Come From?

The story of the Elf on a Shelf started in 2004. Some may assume that this Christmas character was created by a major toy company such as Hasbro or Mattel.

However, it was invented by a housewife Carol Aebersold from Georgia, USA, and her two grown twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts.

Initially, the Elf on a Shelf was the name of a self-published by Carol and her daughter Chanda book. The book came with a small box featuring a Scout Elf inside.

The book’s plot revolves around the way Santa finds out which kids are naughty and which are nice. And the authors didn’t come up with the Elf on a Shelf story out of the blue.

In numerous interviews, now a famous writer and entrepreneur, Carol Aebersold, says that the concept was drawn from a family tradition from her childhood in the 1970s.

Carol explains that her parents used to tell her that an elf named Fisbee lived in their home. Every night, Fisbee would report to Santa how Carol behaved throughout the day. In the morning, Fisbee would be back in a different position.

Carol states that this legend was a great motivation for her and other kids in the family to do good deeds and, occasionally, tell what they would like for Christmas out loud.

When Carol became a mother herself, she continued the tradition. She would tell her kid that Fisbee flies around the house throughout the day and shouldn’t be touched, or it would lose its magic.

The idea of turning family legend into a book came to Chanda Bill. In the early 2000s, her mother was going through a rough time, and their family had little money.

Once, she was sitting in the living room while visiting her parents and noticed the elf figure the twin sisters grew up with.

Chanda says that she had an intent of starting up a business. All she wanted was to elevate her mother’s mood and do something fun together.

But once the story was published, it quickly gained immense popularity in the US and soon spread throughout Europe, especially after actress Jennifer Garner was noticed waking with an Elf on the Shelf box in 2007.

In 2012, a large floating the Elf on a Shelf first took part in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and a year later, the toy received first place in USA Today’s Bestsellers List.

In 2013, a special edition of the toy, The Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition, was introduced, suggesting families invite an elf to visit their kid’s birthday party.

The Simpsons, known to reference any more or less notable cultural phenomenon, parodied the Elf on a Shelf as the Gnome in the Home in their 2016 Christmas episode.

The Plot of the Elf on a Shelf

The Elf on a Shelf plot is simple – the authors didn’t add anything new to the family legend that was already perfect as is.

According to the book, the Elf on a Shelf is known as Santa’s best friend. However, he isn’t the only elf in the world – every home with children has its own scout elf watching daily events and reporting about them to Santa from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve.

The elves would constantly play hide and seek with the family members, hiding in a new spot every morning.

The book states that elves get their powers from their names, and only if the children of the family love them. For his reason, the back of each book features an empty line for readers to write down their elf’s name.

While the elf shouldn’t be touched, kids can talk to it and share their Christmas wishes. The story ends with the elf leaving the family home to stay with Santa until the next Christmas season arrives.

Knee-Hugger Elves

While the legend of the Elf on a Shelf is original, the design of an elf hugging its knees originated in the 1950s. Such figurines were known simply as knee-hugger elves and were mass-produced in the US and Japan.

Perhaps, the very same figurine also adorned the Christmas tree or fireplace of Aebersold’s family house.

The reason knee-hugger elves were manufactured in Japan was that Japan had a large debt to the US at that time. Toy and novelty production was part of the strategy of paying off the debts.

In the 1960s, “made in Japan” was a synonym of poor quality, so the elf figurines were mostly seen in lower to middle-class families.

The first knee-hugger elves were made from cheap felt fabric and wire. Bendable wire arms and legs allowed people to put the elf sitting on the fireplace o hanging as an ornament.

Figurine heads were usually plastic-injection molded and contained celluloid that was prohibited in toys.

The popularity of figurines was steeply declining throughout the decades. After the Elf on a Shelf was published, the public interest for vintage knee-hugger elves surged again.

Consequently, the figurines have raised in price and are now considered valuable collectibles. Today, you can find numerous vintage knee-hugger elf listings on Amazon, Etsy, or eBay.

The Mensch on a Bench

The Mensch on the Bench is a Jewish counterpart to the Elf on a Shelf. It was created as a joke by Benjamin Goober Elkins but has quickly turned into a lasting brand that can be found not solely in Jewish households.

The Mensch on the Bench is a stuffed toy that resembles a rabbi and is named Moshe. The first batch was manufactured on money raised on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter by former Hasbro marketing executive Neal Hoffman in 2013.

Unlike the Elf on a Shelf, Moshe doesn’t like surveillance and instead tells jokes and teaches kids interesting facts and phrases in Yiddish. However, the toy has only acquired a voice in 2020, seven years after its release.

A major factor influencing Moshe’s popularity was its appearance in the 2017 World Baseball Classic championship.

Cody Decker, team Israel’s starting left fielder, took the toy along as a mascot, claiming he tried to buy Moshe a first-class ticket but had to put him in a duffel bag instead.

Since 2017, Moshe has traveled with the team to every championship. They call Moshe not just a mascot but a teammate, a friend, and a symbol of their culture.

Surprisingly, although the Mensch on the Bench was created as a joke and the Elf on the Shelf originated from a heartwarming Christmas story, only the latter received a wave of criticism from parents and the media.

Elf on a Shelf Criticism

Although the Elf on a Shelf story is motivating and merry, it has received a lot of criticism. Often, the Elf on a Shelf parent reviews in online stores claim that their children are afraid of the toy.

Perhaps, the reason for this is the resemblance of the doll’s face to a clown, with wide-open eyes and an odd smile. Data shows that nearly 8% of Americans have an intense fear of clowns.

Furthermore, some parents report that the surveillance of the elf gave their kids paranoia. It isn’t surprising that some kids don’t like the idea of their behavior being constantly watched, let alone reported to Santa.

Parents aren’t always fond of the Elf on a Shelf. Kate Tuttle, a journalist for The Atlantic, considers the Elf on a Shelf to be a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition whose mission is to spy on kids.

Some also argue that parents buying the Elf on a Shelf bully their kids into believing that good behavior equals gifts or that they have no privacy and spying is alright.

In November 2011, CBS issued a 30-minute cartoon, An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf. The animated special was criticized by The Washington Post, being called a long advertisement for the book, which didn’t embody the Christmas spirit like holiday specials should do.

Image credit: CreativeCommons

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