For adults, the holiday season is not an easy one at the best of times. Around Thanksgiving, the pressure starts to make this time “perfect” for ourselves and those around us–especially those of us with kids. Everyone has a suggestion for a new tradition that is going to make our Christmas more magical, more precious, more memorable. In truth, 99% of those suggestions are going to make Christmas more stressful.
I have been orchestrating Christmas in my household for twenty years now, and I have come up with three caveats about creating Christmas magic. I believe they can be applied to many holidays, so even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope these help:
- I am not going to create the perfect Christmas. Christmas is not supposed to be perfect, no matter how many stores try to convince me to buy things that will make it so. The first Christmas, if we go to the religious roots, was not perfect–a fourteen-year-old girl gave birth to a baby, in a barn, far from home, with no help.
- I am going to create the best Christmas for me and my family. I am going to sit down, figure out what Christmas means to me, and find traditions that emphasize those beliefs.
- I am not going to do anything I don’t enjoy unless it’s an absolute necessity.
I learned these truths the hard way, from seven years of service to The Elf on the Shelf. It all started about ten years ago, when my kids were six and three. One of my friends told me about The Elf. At the time I was new at the mom thing, and would have done anything to create the most Magical Christmas Ever, so I bought it.
My husband said, “This is a very bad idea.” He had been opposed to the Santa thing, arguing, “I don’t want to make Christmas a season of lies. I don’t mind teaching them about the real St. Nicholas, but I am not going to tell them some magical person is going to bring them presents based on their behavior one month out of the year.” By the time we had kids, I knew very well that my husband’s family had never played up Santa to any great extent. “When I was a kid,” my husband told me, “Santa brought health and beauty aids. Toothbrushes, soaps, little knick-knacks that fit in the stocking.” No big gifts? “Nope. The good gifts always came from Mom and Dad, because they bought them, and they wanted the credit.”
My argument was that Santa, to me, symbolized the spirit of giving while expecting nothing in return. When Santa gave big gifts, it was a selfless act on our part, where we did not even expect thanks for what was given, and it would teach the kids to become part of that spirit when we eventually told them we were Santa. We compromised on the gifts–Santa gave a medium-sized gift to each child, not just drug store items. And my husband acquiesced to the elf with serious reservations.
I should have listened to him. Or, I should have at least pre-read the book, The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, which accompanied the Elf. But I was too tired to do proper research, so on Thanksgiving I said to the kids, “Tomorrow we’re going to get a very special visitor! The Elf on the Shelf! And here’s a book that’s going to tell us all about him!”
The book said this: On the day after Thanksgiving, Santa sends an Elf to every child’s house. The Elf sits on the shelf all day watching the children. At night he goes back to the North Pole to tell Santa all the things the children did that day. On Christmas Eve, when Santa comes, he picks up the Elf and takes him back to the North Pole. The next year, a new Elf will come and be with the family.
I’ll admit, as I read the book aloud, the Police song “Every Breath you Take” started playing in my mind, followed by “(I Always Feel Like) Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell. Then I had flashbacks to George Orwell’s 1984, and Michele Foucault’s essay “Panopticon.” This should have been a big clue that this particular Christmas tradition would not be my cup of tea. But then again, what was the harm in creating a surveillance state in your living room when it is in service of The Magic of Christmas?
Plus, the doll was kinda cute, and the kids thought he was adorable. In the beginning it was fun to find a place to put the Elf where the kids could see him, but not touch him–because the book said if they touched him, his magic would rub off, and he wouldn’t be able to get back to the North Pole again. (And then, we assume, he would die and the children would be guilty of Elficide and be on the Naughty List for the rest of their lives).
The problem: The Elf had to be put in a new visible but child-inaccessible location every night. You see, the book made it clear that after the Elf went home to the North Pole to snitch to Santa, when he came back the next day he would be in a different place in the house. A different shelf, so to speak.
Quick: can you think of 28-30 high-up, visible, centrally located but child-inaccessible places to put something in your house? Yeah. Neither can I. And I certainly couldn’t do so on the amount of sleep I was getting every night when my kids were six and three. This sent me, as we might say, “off script,” because the Elf book did not explain what to say when Mom and Dad both fell asleep before moving The Elf.
The kids woke up one morning and screamed “Mom! What happened to The Elf? He didn’t move!”
Fortunately, I’m a writer, so I can spin a tale. I blurted, “Ah. Yes. Elf didn’t move, huh? Well, see, I think Elf really loves you, and he knew if he went back to the North Pole last night he would have to tell Santa how poorly you behaved yesterday, and he only wants to tell Santa the VERY BEST things. So I think he decided to call in sick and stay here another day so he could go back to the North Pole and only tell Santa the good things you’re going to do TODAY. Because you’re going to be very good today, won’t you?”
My oldest daughter looked at me, eyes wide and full of tears. “I’ll make it up to The Elf, Mommy! I’m going to get him a present!”
And thus began the Altar of the Elf. Every day, I’d find a small pile of little gifts amassed as close to The Elf as possible without actually touching him. There were candies. Little Polly Pocket teddy bears. Notes in kindergarten scrawl telling of their sadness for their behavior and their undying love for The Elf.
This was not going in the direction I had hoped. The Elf wasn’t teaching as much about the spirit of giving as the spirit of bribing. I had wanted to make Christmas magical. I had made it virtually idolatrous. And as my husband often said in the seven years we served the Elf, “We have made a huge mistake.”
But we had started this tradition, and the kids loved it. This meant we had to do it every year. If I had a dollar for every time when, as my husband and I were falling asleep, one of us woke up exclaiming, “S*#$! We forgot to move the Elf!” I’d be able to buy a lot of Toys for Tots.
So it was a great relief to us when the Era of the Elf ended. It was not so for all of my friends. Many of them loved creating scenes where the elf made snow angels in flour or went fishing in the toilet bowl, and they miss it now that the kids are older. This just goes to show that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Christmas traditions. We need to find the ones that work for us and for our families.
In the comments section below, feel free to tell me: what are yours?
Siren Suzannah Gail Collins had a holiday tradition she doesn’t recommend. You can read her story here: Confessions of a Christmas Letter Writer.