The Elf On The Shelf Trend Explained

December 13, 2018 6:00 AM ‐ ChristmasLong Reads

This article is more than five years old and was last updated in October 2019.

If you've got to 2018 without knowing what the Elf on the Shelf is, then where have you been? The elf has become a modern Christmas tradition and is a massively growing worldwide viral trend.

You've probably heard of the Elf on the Shelf, they appear in homes around the world before Christmas and keep an eye on you to make sure you're behaving.

They look just like normal toys by day but at night they fly back to the North Pole and let Santa know if you've been good or bad to help him make his naughty or nice list.

Before morning the elf comes back to the house and finds a new spot to sit and watch for the day.

How Did The Elf On The Shelf Craze Start?

The phenomenon started in 2005 when Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell wrote the children's picture book, 'The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition'. The book was illustrated by Coë Steinwart and told the story of a small scout elf who visits children on Santa Claus' behalf ahead of Christmas to check whether they're being naughty or nice.

The best-selling book, which went on to win the National Best Books Award sponsored by USA Book News in 2008, was not only a massive hit with kids but it was also a genius marketing machine that invented a new festive tradition. The book comes in a keepsake box that includes a small toy, which allows parents to bring the story to life for their children. The elf figure won Learning Express's Best Toy Award in 2008.

Told in rhymes, the story goes that Santa sent the scout elves to children's homes around the world, where they find a shelf to hide on and monitor the child's behaviour. Every night, once everyone in the house is in bed, the elf flies to the North Pole to report back to Santa, which means that the next day he'll be hiding in a new spot around the house.

An elf starts off without any magical abilities, but gets its powers upon arriving at the house and being given a name. This gives the elf the power of magical flight. The story tells children not to touch the elf or it will lose its magic powers or disappear forever. The children in the story never see the elf move. Of course, this means parents can do exactly the same, place the elf somewhere around the home and their kids won't touch it for fear of taking its powers away and they won't question why they don't see it moving.
"There's only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won't hear all I've seen or I know."
Elf on the Shelf

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Although you're not allowed to touch your elf, it's a good idea to talk to him and tell him your Christmas wishes and what you're hoping Santa will bring you for Christmas this year.

The tradition of placing an elf has become more of a cultural phenomenon than the original book and kids love waking up each morning in December to find that their scout elf has moved to a different location around the house, having moved unseen throughout the night. There is now a whole host of elfin accessories including sleeping bags, hammocks and little elf doors to place around the skirting board in a room.

Some parents also leave a small gift next to the elf to reward their children for good behaviour with an early present from Santa.

The whole thing forces parents to put their imaginations to use to think of new and exciting ways to hide the elf. This can be anywhere from swinging from a light fitting, sat on top of the television or scaling the Christmas tree. This carries on until the night before Christmas, after which time the elf returns to the North Pole until next December.
Elf On The Shelf

After writing the book in 2004, the family team spent the next three years promoting their self-published booked and each year the craze has gone from strength to strength. It started really building momentum in 2007, then the following year won several awards.

The franchise was given a further boost in 2011 when the US television network CBS broadcast a 30-minute-long animated film, 'An Elf's Story', which tells the story of a scout elf called Chippy. Although kids seem to love the cartoon, which is now available on DVD and BluRay, parents generally think the film is overpriced and too short. The Washington Post said that the film was nothing more than "a half-hour advertisement for a book and a toy."

In 2012, there's was another surge in popularity for the Elf on the Shelf, it was this year that the elf made his first appearance in the huge Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and in 2013, the book topped the USA Today Bestsellers List.
Elf On The Shelf Trend

According to Google search trends data, the phenomenon grew steadily from the book's release in 2005 through to its peak in 2015. Interest in the topic online died down a little in 2016 and 2017, but the search giant's projections for this year suggest that the elf could be about to experience its biggest year yet.

The trend's growth online is likely down to the viral nature of the tradition, which sees many parents taking to social media to post pictures of the festive toy in the creative and bizarre poses and unusual places they've placed their children's elves in.

The weird and wonderful elf poses can be anything from playing poker with other toys, through to helping with household chores. Other viral snaps include elves seen drinking, stripping and indulging in all sorts of adult activities.

According to Google's data, over the last few years the most search interest in the Elf on the Shelf came from Ireland, who are closely followed by the United States, then Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

You've Heard Of Elf On The Shelf...

The Elf on the Shelf has inspired a sub-viral trend, the "you've heard of the Elf on the Shelf" meme. The trend sees photos being shared on social media with the caption "you've heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for..." the photo shows another rhyming pairing, such as a picture of Shrek stood on a deck.

Other popular "you've heard of" memes include, Obama on a llama, the Pope on a rope, a yeti on spaghetti, Trump on a stump, Drake on a steak, and a wookie on a cookie.

How Does Elf On The Shelf Arrive For The First Time?

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This video shows you how the Elf on the Shelf gets into your house for the first time before Christmas.

It starts with Santa picking someone from his naughty and nice list, now-a-days this is all done with a mobile app. He picks the boy or girl, assign a scout elf to him and sets the location. The elf flies to the person's house and use magic to get in. He'll normally appear in a dark corner at first like inside of cupboard or under the sofa.

Once the elf is in your house he'll then find somewhere where he can sit and watch you. When he needs to report back to Santa he can now comes and go as he pleases, by flying up the chimney, letting himself out through the door or by climbing out of windows.

How To See The Elf On The Shelf Move At Christmas

Perhaps you've seen an elf hiding in your house and you've wished you could see it move, well in this video we try to find a way. The elf won't appear until the Christmas tree is up. Once the house is decorated you'll find him perched on a shelf or hiding somewhere.

First we tried to trick the elf into moving by placing tempting treats in front of him. We used festive treats like chocolate coins, candy canes and mince pies. We left them for a few hours, but it didn't work.

So, we decided to leave a special night vision camera to see what happened to the elf in the dark at night.

For most of the night, nothing happened but watch what happens just before sunrise the elf vanished in a flash, taking the treats with him and leaving nothing but crumbs.

But he's not gone for long, just as the first drop of sunlight hits the shelf, he reappeared.

So where did he go? Well, we carefully attach a small GPS tracker to the elf, I had to be careful not to touch him as this can make the magic disappear. But this tracker let's see the elf's route and it seems that the toy did travel all the way to the North Pole during the night.

Real Elf On The Shelf Caught Moving On Camera

Since we first caught out Elf on the Shelf moving, we've been trying to catch him moving on camera again, so we've been staying up all night and kept a camera with us at all times. All these clips are real video that I captured of the elf moving.

On Monday night I heard a strange sound coming from one of the cupboards, so I grabbed my camera and took a look inside.

The next morning, just as I was about to go to bed, I saw the elf climbing inside my bed.

I left a Christmas cracked outside of a cupboard door, I knew eventually he’d take it.

Later in the week I heard a rustling sound coming from the Christmas tree so I started filming and caught this.

The problem is, you never really get to see an Elf on the Shelf move because as soon as they know they're being watched, they turn back into a toy.

Here's a test you can try. Place your TV's remote control in front of the television, pointing at the set. Then place your Elf next to it and cover it up with a sheet.

Elves hate the boring news and you'll probably find they'll change the channel. As long as they’re not being watched.

Elf On The Shelf Caught Moving On CCTV

This video shows an Elf on the Shelf caught moving around the house on security camera at Christmas.

After I caught my Elf on the Shelf moving around last Christmas, I decided to get some proper night vision security cameras installed so that I could capture his movements properly this year.

What Happens If You Touch The Elf On The Shelf

We know that touching an Elf on the Shelf is bad, but what actually happens if you do? It seems that if you anger him, he turns evil. I tried to make my elf move with electricity, but I don't think he liked it and after he became very mischievous. In this video are some of the pranks he played which I managed to catch on camera.

First off I heard a noise coming from a pot in the kitchen, I opened it up and he threw pasta everywhere. A few hours later I heard a noise coming from another room and found the elf hanging from a light fitting. He then unscrewed the bulb and left me in darkness.

Then it wasn't long before I caught him rummaging around in my clothes hamper and he made such a mess throwing clothes around. Then he decided to hide in my boot and bit my foot when I put them on, which really hurt.

Then he tried to ruin Christmas by ripping open the Christmas presents under the tree. I did find one way to stop him, I put him in the freezer over night and hoped that by the time he thaws out he will have calmed down.

"1984-esque Child Monitoring"

There's no denying the success of the Elf on the Shelf and it's clear that the majority of kids and parents love their elves, but some critics have called the phenomenon "creepy" and described it "a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition".

The idea of bringing a toy into your home to spy on your children is wrong says The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle, who wrote that the toy is a way to "bully your child into thinking that good behaviour equals gifts."

Some have even said that parents using the elf toy helps to condition kids to accept the surveillance state and that it communicates to children that "it's okay for other people to spy on you, and you're not entitled to privacy." Others have labeled it as part of the "Santa lie."

One harsh Amazon review called the elf toy a "horrible passive aggressive doll that 'watches you' then tells on you to Santa." Another reviewer wrote, "terrible story I am afraid, encouraging 1984-esque child monitoring. Kept the elf and threw away the book."

Although it is possible that these people are taking it a little too seriously. The elf and its various hiding locations bring a lot of joy to children and the "Santa lie" has never really hurt anyone, children have been brought up with stories of Santa visiting and rewarding the best behaved children for generations.

Get Your Own Elf On The Shelf

Elf On The Shelf: A Christmas Tradition

The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is the very special tool that helps Santa know who to put on the Naughty and Nice list. This interactive holiday hide-and-seek tradition is perfect for children and families of all ages. The tradition begins when Santa sends his scout elves out to Elf Adoption Centers. Waiting for their families to bring them home, these patient elves hibernate until their family reads The Elf on the Shelf, gives their elf a very special name, and registers their adoption online. Once named, each scout elf will receive its Christmas magic and becomes part of the family's Christmas each and every year.

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