When it comes to trends, I operate on a standard five-to-ten-year delay. Hence, I refer to ink cartridges as “printer ribbons,” I’ve always wanted that hairstyle Jennifer Anniston had on “Friends,” and I still own a pair of dark-washed jeans. So, it’s no surprise that I never picked up on The Elf on the Shelf craze.
I didn’t even hear about that particular holiday phenom until 2009 while our family was stationed in Germany. Anyone who’s ever been to Germany knows that an elf doll that sits on a shelf is a real snoozer compared to the wonder and Old World charm of festive Christmas markets, sparkling glass-blown ornaments, elaborately-carved wooden nutcrackers, real reindeer-drawn sleigh rides, and the spicy aroma of hot Glüwein. The arguably superior German Christmas traditions left no need to supplement the celebrations with a silly book about an elf on the shelf.
However, I couldn’t resist the guilt trip.
I learned that another Navy wife in our base stairwell apartment building was keeping the magic of Santa alive for her three children by secretly hiding a posable elf doll around the house every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Apparently, the elf was Santa’s spy, flying to the North Pole every night to report back on who’s been naughty or nice, and returning to a new location each morning, in increasingly funny scenarios that delighted her children. Making snow angels in rainbow sprinkles on the countertop, splashing in a mini-marshmallow bubble bath with Buzz Lightyear, and catching goldfish crackers in the toilet with a candy cane fishing pole.
This was the same mom who also baked a different cookie for her kids every day for “The Twelve Cookies of Christmas” and who surprised her kids with a green glitter and chocolate coin leprechaun ransack of their house every St. Patrick’s Day — so I should have known better. But instead, I felt terrible.
“How did I miss this Elf on the Shelf thing?” I wondered. “Am I just too lazy to be a good mother? Do my kids feel deprived of their rightful share of holiday fun? Will they grow up so full of resentment that they will lead lives of crime and end up in prison making license plates and eating contraband Honey Buns with plastic sporks?”
Like I said, I just can’t resist a guilt trip.
After moving back to the states, I broke down and bought a knock-off elf, but by that time our kids were old enough to know that Santa didn’t come down the chimney, much less have spies. Regardless, as an act of Christmas contrition, I wrapped the doll’s felt and wire arms around the ceiling fan blade, fully intending to finally teach my children the timeless tradition of the Elf on the Shelf.
And that is where he stayed for the entire month.
Rather than alleviate my guilt, bringing that damned elf into our home only brought me more parenting disgrace. I found it impossible to remember to move the elf at night, much less pose him in witty scenarios to entertain the kids. When I checked the internet for ideas, I only ended up feeling worse about myself for getting sucked into perusing Pinterest boards with titles like “The 100 Most Inappropriate Elf on a Shelf Ideas for Adults Only.”
Childish giggling only amplified my shame.
After Christmas, I plucked our elf from his fan blade confinement, brushed off a month’s worth of dust before storing him away, and wallowed in self-loathing.
This year, while sorting through our boxes of Christmas decorations, I found the elf crumpled against a snow globe, one leg bent at an unnatural angle. I took him out and hooked his felt and wire arms over the bannister garland, and that is where he will probably stay until the New Year.
I have come to accept the irony that, although I lack the discipline it takes to move a tiny elf from shelf to shelf, I always manage to drag a load parental guilt around with me everywhere I go.
Is it any wonder I’m a Catholic?