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It all began as a quirky family tradition that Carol Aebersold enacted with her twin daughters every holiday season, but today Elf on the Shelf has turned into a trending global phenomenon. In the weeks before Christmas, parents place what’s called a “scout elf” in a creative position somewhere around the house every night. Say popping out of a cookie jar, hanging from a lamp or even scaling the fireplace mantle with the help of a candy cane.
The basic idea is that the elf observes children’s behavior during the day and then flies back to the North Pole every night to tell Santa if the kids will be on the naughty or nice list. Once the elf has reported to St. Nick, it flies back to its adopted family’s home and lands in a new (and hopefully creative) position somewhere in the house. This continues until Christmas Eve, when your elf will fly back for its final journey to the North Pole to help Santa with his Christmas voyages. You won’t see your friend again until next year during Scout Elf Return week, which usually happens between November 24-December 1.
Storytime: How Elf on the Shelf Got Started
These days Elf on the Shelf has its own Netflix specials and even makes an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but its origins were a lot more humble. Back in the 70s, stay at home mom Carol Aebersold drew on her family’s Scandinavian traditions to engage her daughters in a creative game of hide and seek with Santa’s little helper.
So beloved was the family custom that Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell eventually wrote a book about it called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, which they self-published in 2005.
Though it took some time for the snowball to get rolling, things really started to take off when actress Jennifer Garner was spotted with a copy of the book in 2007. Her star power and an interview on the Today Show helped to put the Elf on the Shelf in the limelight and eventually turned it into a global phenomenon.
How Elf on the Shelf Works
Ready to get in on the fun? Here are a few things you should know to get started with Elf on the Shelf.
First Adopt and Name Your Elf
When you adopt (aka buy) your Elf, you can customize it by gender, skin and eye color. Your little friend will arrive in a keepsake box along with a copy of The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.
The book is basically an explanation and instruction book for both kids and adults on how the game works. At the end of the storybook, you’ll find a certificate that you can fill in with your family name, the name of the elf, and the date you adopted them. You can even register the adoption online to receive a special message from Santa himself.
The Basic Rules of Elf on the Shelf
The most important rule with Elf on the Shelf is that children are not allowed to touch Santa’s helper. Though kids are encouraged to confide their secret wishes or tell him their good deeds, touching the elf puts him in danger of losing his magic. (Besides, after an entire night of hijinx, what elf wouldn’t want to rest and have his space during the day?)
Of course, this may be a bit of a challenge for kids, which is why there are a few fixes that will bring the magic back in case little hands give in to temptation. Singing a Christmas Carol, sprinkling a little cinnamon around the elf or writing a letter to Santa all help to bring the mojo back.
Of course, if the elf gets into trouble (by falling off a shelf or ending up in a pet’s mouth), parents can intervene during the day by wearing a pair of gloves or using tongs. Otherwise, their only job is to find a new and creative place to hide the elf each night.
Worried your creativity may run out? Not to worry. You can find tons of ideas online, and the Elf on the Shelf website also has a list of reasons why your elf may have picked the same spot two nights in a row (such as it was an especially good vantage point to observe the kids or the elf got back late from the North Pole and didn’t have time to choose a new spot).
Is Elf on the Shelf Naughty or Nice?
For many parents, Elf on the Shelf is an entertaining way to get kids into the holiday spirit and encourage good behavior. Looking for Santa’s Helper each morning and figuring out what he’s been up to at night is a fun game for kids. And some parents enjoy expressing their creativity by coming up with unique scenarios and amusing shenanigans for the elves.
Admittedly, the game also has its detractors. Some families may not like the idea of an elf “spying” on their kids and making a report to Santa Claus. Other parents simply don’t want to dream up a new scenario for the elf each night.
Each family has to decide whether Elf on the Shelf is right for them. And it also helps to keep in mind that you can tailor the tradition to suit your family. For example, the game could be more focused on the hide-and-seek element and the elf’s mischief as opposed to reports about whether kids or naughty or nice. That way, the elf feels more like a friend as opposed to a monitor.
But, again, this is a parenting decision that the adults must make according to what they believe is best.
Elf on the Shelf Resources
If Elf on the Shelf sounds like a way to make your family merrier, there are plenty of resources to help you keep the mischief afoot.
Elf on the Shelf website
For more details about the game, you can visit the Elf on the Shelf website. In addition to a great FAQ section, you’ll also find extras like clothes, elf pets and toys, which you can use to create scenarios for Santa’s little helper. The Lumistella Company also offers Scout Elves at Play, a complete kit to get your home ready for a scout elf.
Etsy also has entire shops dedicated to enhancing your Elf on the Shelf experience, like this 12-30-Day Elf Activity Kit, for example.
Or how about these miniature ugly Christmas sweaters? Even an elf can’t resist a little holiday irony sometimes.
Of course, sometimes an elf likes to play dress-up, in which case these costumes make great disguises. Our only question is, can an elf be arrested for impersonating Santa?
You can also buy Elf on the Shelf kits with clothes and activities on Amazon. This kit with a sleeping bag, robe, mermaid tail, kitchen apron and more will definitely keep the holiday cheer going!
For some added charm, check out the Claus Couture Collection snowflake skirt and scarf.
Instagram and Pinterest
Looking for creative ideas for your elf scenarios? Check out Instagram and Pinterest, and you’re sure to get inspired!
40 Of Our Favorite Elf on the Shelf Ideas
Speaking of creative ideas, here are a few of our favorites to keep the holiday fun rolling. Running the gamut from super simple to more elaborate, these ideas will fill your house with smiles and a little Christmas magic.
1. Elf on the Shelf Snow Angel
With all that holiday baking going on, it’s hard to resist making a flour angel!
2. Elf on the Shelf Swing
Want to fashion a Christmas tree swing for your little guy? It’s easy with a toilet paper roll and a bit of twine.
3. Elf on the Shelf Banister
How’s a mischievous elf to resist sliding down a banister on a candy cane slide?
4. Quarantine Elf
Humans aren’t the only ones affected by sickness. When the winter bugs come into your home, put your elf in quarantine for a new spin on things.
5. Elf on the Shelf Candy Cane Garden
Showcase your elf’s green thumb with this candy cane garden. Simply plant some peppermint candies before bed and wake up to a candy cane garden.
6. Elf on the Shelf Grinch Arrest
Even the Grinch himself is no match for elf magic!
7. Elf on the Shelf Igloo
Sometimes an elf gets homesick for the North Pole. Why not build him an igloo where he can spend the night?
8. Elf on the Shelf Movie Night
Then again, sometimes an elf just likes to chill and watch their favorite holiday movie with some friends.
Related: The 39 Best Stocking Stuffers For Kids [Shopping Made Easy]
9. Elf on the Shelf Snow Day
When it comes to sledding, elves are always up for hitting the snow!
10. Elf on the Shelf Piñata
Did somebody say fiesta? Arriba!
Here’s where to find your mini piñata.
11. Elf on the Shelf Spa Day
Shenanigans can be exhausting. Sometimes an elf just needs a spa day.
12. Stink, Stank, Stunk Bathroom Woes
What do you expect from an elf that spends all day eating sugar? This smelly elf will make your kids laugh and could be a great coverup for your own smelly business.
13. Elf on the Shelf S’mores
Who doesn’t love a s’more?! Oh darn, now we want a s’more.
14. Elf on the Shelf Beach Day
When you live most of the year in the North Pole, sometimes a beach day is in order!
15. Elf on the Shelf Snowman
It’s Frosty, the toilet paper elf!
16. Elf on the Shelf Harry Potter
Elves and Harry Potter are a natural fit. They love a little mischief!
17. Elf on the Shelf Gym
When you’re eating tons of Christmas cookies, it pays to hit the gym now and again.
18. Elf on the Shelf Coffee Break
All those holiday hijinx have to be fueled by something!
19. Elf on the Shelf Cross Country Skiing
When you can’t catch a reindeer Uber, skis can be a handy way to get around.
20. Elf on the Shelf Kisses
We love this simple and sweet idea for sharing the love.
21. Elf on the Shelf Campsite
This camping idea is too cute!
22. Elf on the Shelf Toothpaste Drawing
This is the Elvin equivalent of graffiti.
23. Elf on the Shelf Snowmen
Living at the North Pole makes elves experts when it comes to building snowmen.
24. Elf on the Shelf Breakfast
As long as they’re up all night, they may as well make breakfast for the kids.
25. Elf on the Shelf Smartie Pants
There’s no denying that elves have a mischievous sense of humor.
26. Elf on the Shelf Vacuum Ride
Not quite as exciting as a flying reindeer, but for elves, it’s still a pretty fun ride.
27. Elf on the Shelf Tightrope
If elves didn’t work for Santa, they’d probably run away and join the circus.
28. Elf on the Shelf Gummy Bears
All you need are gummy bears and a sink to execute this tasty idea.
Related: 33 Awesome Christmas Songs You Probably Haven’t Heard
29. Elf on the Shelf Bake Sale
We wonder if Santa approves of moonlighting?
30. Elf on the Shelf Balloon Ride
You’ll need a few helium balloons for this idea, but it definitely has a wow factor.
31. Elf on the Shelf Boat Ride
Row, row, row your boat…gently with some suckers.
32. Elf on the Shelf MInions
Some elves even have an artistic streak.
33. Elf on the Shelf Game of Thrones
Yes, Christmas is coming. And your elf better watch out for pretenders to the throne!
34. Elf on the Shelf Hot Tub
No elf can resist a good soak in the hot tub!
35. Elf on the Shelf Jenga
Turns out that elves like Jenga too. Especially when it’s chocolate Jenga!
36. Elf on the Shelf Golf
37. Elf on the Shelf Giver
Want to teach your kids about the spirit of giving? Elf on the Shelf can help!
38. Elf on the Toilet Paper Roll
Leave it to an elf to turn toilet paper into a fun ride.
39. Elf on the Shelf Sleigh Ride
We love that this sleigh is edible. On pudding, on….pudding!
40. Elf on the Shelf Farewell
Eventually, the Christmas season has to come to an end. Here’s a creative way for your scout elf to say goodbye until next year.
Santa’s Little Elfers
As you can see, there are tons of ways to have fun with Elf on the Shelf and make it part of your family tradition. Whether you choose a simple idea or an elaborate one that takes more time, inviting Santa’s little helpers into your home can build excitement as Christmas approaches.
Depending on the scenario, Elf on the Shelf can also be a teaching moment about the spirit of giving or an opportunity to engage your child in another game, such as finding some candy canes that their little friend has hidden away.
Whether you choose to use Elf on the Shelf to encourage good behavior or not, having a little friend that brings some Christmas cheer to your home can add another layer of fun and mystery to the holiday season for kids.
Here’s wishing you a warm and magical holiday season with your little ones!
You might also be interested in: How To Make Your Baby’s First Christmas Or Holiday Special