History of Elf on the Shelf, Who Is More Than a Mom's Nightmare

Ysolt Usigan
·5-min read
Photo credit: Dia Dipasupil - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dia Dipasupil - Getty Images

From Woman's Day

If you live in a home with at least one kid under the age of 10, chances are you've heard all about Elf on the Shelf. The doll — and concept — helps parents around the world encourage their kids to be on their best behavior during the holiday season. If you’re not already familiar, the premise is simple: the elf appears at various locations in your home, he or she keeps an eye on your kids, and then reports back to Santa as to whether or not they've been "naughty or nice." Will your little one get a good gift from Kris Kringle? It depends on what the elf sees.

Genius.

Prior to Elf on the Shelf, parents used to just say that Santa is "always watching," and you’ll land on either the nice or naughty list depending on your behavior. But with the introduction of Santa's super secret spy, it’s a little easier for kids to understand just how they are evaluated during the holidays. So who had the impeccable idea of creating a mythical creature to help Santa decide if kids get presents or coal on Christmas Day? To no one's surprise, it all starts with an idea from a mom.

The History of Elf on the Shelf

In 2005, creator Carol Aebersold (a stay-at-home mom at the time) and her daughter, Chanda Bell, published a children’s book called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, based on their family’s own Scandinavian holiday tradition that started in the 1970s.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Christa Pitts, Aebersold’s other daughter, told HuffPost. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

Though Fisbee was like a Christmas ornament for the family at the time, the elf evolved to become more magical over the years for the next generation of kids.

This Christmas tradition wasn’t an overnight hit, though. According to TODAY.com, “When Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, first tried to sell The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, every single editor and publisher turned them down.”

So the women published the book themselves. Instead of having a big publisher’s resources to market the book, the women sold it themselves one by one. “It was a bit of guerrilla marketing at first,” Bell told TODAY.com. The family produced 5,000 copies using credit cards and retirement funds, and sold them straight out of their cars and at state fairs, according to The Golden Bear Gazette.

In addition to explaining their family tradition to people they knew and strangers they didn't, Pitts also attended trade shows to introduce the book about Santa’s scout to potential buyers.

It slowly picked up steam, and by 2007, actress Jennifer Garner was photographed by paparazzi holding the book, which helped spread the word.

Due to a lot of hard work and determination, by 2012 the elf was a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The elf has since spawned other extensions to its franchise, including A Saint Bernard Tradition (from its Elf Pets line), Santa’s Reindeer Rescue, and Merry Minis. You can also now buy elf clothes and costumes, plus other story books.

As of 2018, 13 million books (and elves) have been sold at over 15,000 retailers across the country, according to WSB-TV.

Come closer to Christmas, you’ll see hundreds of elves all over social media as parents showcase their creativity of where and how they display Santa’s scout. Check out the hashtag here on Instagram for #elfontheshelf posts, which have already started to sprout up.

The Elf on the Shelf Rules

Ready to get in on the tradition yourself?

Once the elf is “sent to your home from the North Pole” (as in, after you buy it from Target or Amazon for $29.95), it’s up to parents to facilitate the holiday magic. Your kid will name the elf, which come in both boy and girl forms, and you can read them the story from the book it comes with.

From there, the magic ensues. Little ones may believe that the elf miraculously appears on shelves, hanging on chandeliers, sitting on fireplace mantels, but truly, moms and dads are the creative geniuses working "behind the curtain."

Kids, on the other hand, are not allowed to touch the elf. It’s not a toy, after all. And if a child touches the elf, it’ll ruin Christmas — not to be alarmist.

Every night, the elf will go back to home base (the North Pole) to tell Santa if the child or children (whose homes they’re visiting) are being good or bad. When Santa’s scout returns, he or she will be found in a new spot. And of course, it’s up to the parents once again to fulfill what’s on the Christmas wishlist.

Basically, parents, you’re the elves.

Whether you love or hate the Elf on the Shelf, this fictional character changed Christmas forever. If you’ve had it in your home, you can’t deny that it hasn’t sparked joy in your little ones. If you haven’t had it in your home, you may be missing out on all the fun (or headache) depending on how much holiday cheer and creativity you have in your soul.

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