Ages 2-5Traditions & Celebrations

Why there’s no Elf on my Shelf

In late November I started looking for an advent calendar for E.

I hadn’t even thought of getting one until E. started asking if we were going to decorate the Christmas tree yet.

I have firm rules on Christmas decorating, you see.  No Christmas decorations, no Christmas music, no Christmas baking in our house until the first of December.  I don’t want to hear so much as a hint of Boney M’s “Feliz Navidad” if the calendar hasn’t yet turned over.  After December first, it’s another story.  Even though I’m agnostic, I love me some Christmas carols set to the sweet sweet sound of steel drums.

This position worked perfectly well until this year, when E. caught sight of a Christmas tree in a hairdresser’s window on our walk home one evening and fixated, as toddlers are wont to do, on the idea of decorating our Christmas tree.

It soon became all he would talk about.

Along with his fixation with decorating the tree came an absolute certainty, as only toddlers can possess, that Christmas was going to be tomorrow.

After ten days of disappointment when, upon waking, it proved yet again to not be Christmas, I turned to my husband and said, “We need an advent calendar.”

I knew exactly what I wanted.  A simple one, like I remember from when I was a child, where the flaps opened up to reveal pictures underneath.

Not chocolate.

Not Lego, or Playmobil, or My Little Pony, or Barbie, or any of the other myriad brands that have jumped on the countdown-to-Christmas bandwagon.

I must have gone to fifteen different stores before I finally realized that what I wanted no longer existed.

It was impossible to find an advent calendar that didn’t have some sort of treat hiding behind every day.

So I drew a picture of a Christmas tree on our calendar in our kitchen and every night we cross off the day with a red marker before E. goes to bed.  It works perfectly well for our purposes, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the advent calendars in the stores.

I should have been frustrated or angry or annoyed that so much of my time had been wasted.

Instead, I just felt sad.

The over-the-top nature of the advent calendars – the chocolate ones now have a reverse side that allows you to keep on counting down to the New Year, because why should the chocolate goodness end at Christmas? – just reiterated what I’d been feeling for some time now.

As a parent, it seems like it’s becoming harder and harder to keep Christmas simple.

Had I wanted to turn to Pinterest, I would have found dozens of make-your-own advent calendar options, but this would not have helped in my quest to keep things simple.  I am a woman of many strengths but crafting endearing holiday keepsakes that will form long-lasting family traditions is not one of them.  To be honest, I’m still recovering from last December, when imagined peer pressure and innate parental competitiveness fooled me into thinking I was crafty for long enough that I tried to make hand-print dough ornaments painted like Santa for all of E’s grandparents.  They did turn out, after a fashion, but they certainly didn’t look like the Pinterest pictures, and I only got around to putting the sealant on the last two this past week.

I could not make this in a million years.
I could not make this in a million years.

Besides, what really got me with the home-made advent calendar options was how many of them were based around the idea of adding a special activity to each day.  Apparently if you’re not giving your kid chocolate, or plastic figurines, you need to do something else to mark the passing of time.

I can’t think of anything better designed to send me off the deep end than an advent calendar filled with obligatory activities.  I know E. is still young enough that if when life interfered and I got overwhelmed he wouldn’t mind terribly much if I told him for the third day in a row that the advent calendar’s special activity was to put on a Christmas CD (or the Christmas CD, since we only have one).  I’ve got a couple of years yet before he’ll be reading.  But it’s the principle of the thing.

I just can’t bring myself to think it’s a good thing to fill my child’s December with special activities.  My parents divorced and remarried over twenty years ago.  Our childhood Christmases regularly spanned more than a week by the time all sides of the family had been visited and all presents had been opened.  My youngest sister, without anything more ambitious than tree decorating, cookie baking, playing in the snow, and the occasional carol service to occupy her, managed without fail to whip herself up into such a frenzy of anticipation that most years she was an emotional mess by Christmas.

From my perspective, it just sounds exhausting.

For the same reason, it will be over my dead body if any Elf ever tries to take up residence on our shelf.  In the first place, I just cannot get past the thoroughly creepy idea of placing a miniature spy for Santa in your house. Yes, our house is visited by Santa on Christmas Eve. I don’t plan to tell E. that Santa only brings presents to good little boys and girls, nor will I use that as a means of enforcing obedience or modifying his behaviour in the month of December. Let’s face it, we’re never going to refuse to give him his presents on Christmas morning, and I’d much rather he learn to accept them in a spirit of sharing and giving and bringing joy to people you love than come to view them as prizes for good behaviour.

Even if you just subscribe to the “only for fun!” interpretation of the Elf, where s/he is a tiny invader whose gets up to riotous mayhem that causes hilarity in the morning, that’s still at least twenty-four days of madcap activities that require parental planning, organization, and time to pull off (more if you’re American and you buy into the official suggestion that you start the Elf’s antics after Thanksgiving).

I don’t want to spend my evenings arranging underwear on our Christmas tree, or doodling on the pictures on our walls, or spilling flour on our counters.  Maybe this makes me a Grinch or a Scrooge, but once the toddler’s in bed, and the dishes are done, and the laundry is folded, I’d rather spend the little free time I do have with my husband (or my PhD dissertation, which is far more demanding of attention and far less snuggly).

There just seems to be so much of it this year.  Maybe it’s because I joined Pinterest, or because most of my friends on Facebook have children, but it seems that pictures of Elves and their antics are everywhere I look.  The Elves themselves are prominently featured in stores too, along with their associated storybooks, plush toys, pyjamas and board games. I started to write that it was only a matter of time before they come out with an Elf on the Shelf advent calendar, but it turned out it already exists. Why stop with just an Elf when you can purchase the complete Elf experience?

Any one Elf wreaking havoc in any one household isn’t the issue. And for some, probably many, families, the Elf, or the advent calendar, doesn’t seem like a burden and doesn’t impose any pressure. If you love doing it, and your kids love it too, more power to you. I just wish the results weren’t splattered all over my newsfeeds. The more ubiquitous the Elves become, the harder it is for me to take a step back, to insist on saying no to something that now seems, according to social media, to be a must-do Christmas tradition, even though a decade ago it didn’t exist.  It is not enough, social media and the marketers tell me, to celebrate Christmas one day of the year.  The entire month of December must be feted.  On bad days I sometimes start to believe them.

elf on the shelf
In my view, if the book has to tell you that it’s a Christmas tradition, it probably isn’t…

Our son, on the other hand, is young enough that it is relatively easy to shield him from the parts of the season that make me most uncomfortable, and his own wants are still simple.  When I asked him what he wanted Santa to bring him, he thought for a long time and then said, “Lara bars”.  I only wish every year could be so easy.

I see, however, the juggernaut that is modern parenting and social media and our consumer culture coming down the chimney, and it’s not a cute little sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer.  It’s a luxury sleigh vehicle, complete with Wi-Fi, GPS, USB ports, heated seats, and a retractable roof, and Santa’s sack has iPads inside.

The Elves and the advent calendars are inextricably linked in my mind to the onslaught of consumer culture that the start of the holiday season brings.  This year many of the big brands in Canada embraced the idea of Black Friday in an effort to keep more of our loonies north of the border.  We were plagued for weeks with e-mails and flyers and advertisements for an event that in my country bears absolutely no connection to the holiday from which it originally sprung.  It’s a sales opportunity, nothing more.

Some might not see the link between Black Friday discounts and hand crafted advent calendars filled with thoughtful activities, but to me they are all part of the same package, a package that exploits social media to tell us that we’re not good parents if we’re not seizing every possible moment to make the holiday season more meaningful for our kids.  Whether it’s through buying them more presents or painstakingly coming up with twenty-four distinct activities and then following through with them no matter what life throws at us, the message is loud and clear.  It’s so loud, in fact, that I feel like the point of the holiday is in danger of getting lost in the noise.

That said, when you’re an essentially secular household, figuring out what the meaning of Christmas should be for your children isn’t necessarily easy.

I know that I want E. to grow up understanding the religious traditions behind the celebrations, even though he may never attend a midnight mass.

I know that I want him to view it as a time for family, a chance to wind down, unplug, and spend time with the people he loves.

I also know that I will foster his belief in Santa for as long as it exists.

I want E. to have his chance to believe in magic.

Most of all, I still want the day itself to mean something to him.  I want him to save up his anticipation and excitement for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.  I want that time to be special.

And if I use the advent calendars and the Elves to make the whole month of December extra special, I can’t see how there will be anything left.

(Image credits: Featured image by Magnus Franklin; Advent calendar by Tina D; Elf on the Shelf by Michael Kappel)


Angela spent her early thirties trying to keep her head above water while raising her son and finishing her doctorate. With the PhD in hand and her son about to head off to school, she now has to figure out what comes next. She lives in a southern part of the Great White North with her husband, her son, and two Antipodean cats.

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  1. I didn’t even really do Christmas with my kid till he was 6 last year. I got a mini-tree and had him assemble it with supervision, and then decorate it with mini-ornaments. I bought some coloring books and candy at the Dollar Tree and wrapped them in brown paper from Trader Joe’s bags. (Some even had the handles still attached!) And then I just gave him some money so that he could get himself something nice. This year he’s with his father, so he’s gotten a few small packages that say “don’t open till Xmas” and a check so he can get himself something nice. As a bonus, I sent him a few activity sheets to teach him the true meaning of Yule – the winter solstice! 😀

  2. My friends can’t seem to understand why I won’t bribe my kid with Santa. Santa only brings one gift, and it’s not like I actually have any intent of with holding his gift. Empty threats, hello?

  3. I am an agnostic Canadian as well, and baffled by the things you mention. Black Friday sales? Bribing kids with Santa gifts? Only finding advent calendar with treats? Elf on a freaking shelf? The Elf will never be making an appearance in our house, and Santa will always leave a small gift and stocking toys for my son (currently 6 years old). Years ago we received a reusable advent calendar with fabric animals that he takes out of each day’s pocket and velcroes to a winter Christmas scene. My son has autism, and tends to get fixated on things (like when Christmas will be happening), so the advent calendar is an awesome visual reminder to him. One that has no chocolate (which he does not like) and is the same from year to year is invaluable for that. Plus, he is oblivious to social trends, like Elf on the Shelf, so I can pick and choose what traditions I incorporate into our holidays.
    I look forward to reading your posts here!

  4. Our Costco sold a great advent calendar this year that had a craft project behind each day. It was a fun way to lead up to Christmas without candy or toys. We also have a fabric calendar with a mouse that moves from day to day as well that my daughter loves.

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