One of Santa's elves showed up at Buzz Bishop's Calgary home in mid-November. It was a bit too early for Mr. Bishop – their Christmas tree wasn't even up yet – but once your kids see an elf, there's no shipping the magical little creature back to the North Pole for a few weeks. And the nearly foot-high elf has had a remarkable effect on their two sons, who have never been so excited about the holidays. The Elf on the Shelf, one of this year's hottest holiday toys, may require some parental effort in the name of Christmas magic, but when kids believe the red-suited elf is reporting back to Santa, it can also be fantastic encouragement for the little ones to be nice rather than naughty.
Here's how it works: Acting as Santa's eyes and ears, the elves keep a watchful eye on kids and each night fly back to the North Pole to report to Santa about whether the family is being naughty or nice, and, because they're mischievous elves, they hide throughout the house when they get back. Oh, and if you touch them, they lose their magic.
"He hasn't been in our bathroom yet, so tonight I might put him in mommy and daddy's bathroom to watch us and make sure we're brushing our teeth," Mr. Bishop says. And with the Charlie the elf in there, it might make the struggle over bath time a little easier, adds Mr. Bishop, who runs the parenting blog Dad-Camp.com.
Zacharie, 4, is hardly a problem child, Mr. Bishop says. (His two-year-old is still too young to really get it yet). Yes, the mind games you could play with The Elf on the Shelf to make your kids behave are endless, but that's not the real appeal of the toy, he says. Instead, it's having a kid's belief in Santa and the magic of Christmas renewed each morning as they hunt for the elf.
The Elf on the Shelf was created by the mother-daughter team of Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell in 2005. Since then it has become a phenomenon, selling more than two million copies. Not only is it on most of this year's lists of the most sought after toys, it was also turned into an animated television feature this year, cementing its place in the culture of Christmas.
"The kids want Santa to know that they're really being good and that they're trying," says Ms. Aebersold, who lives in Atlanta, Ga. And if they're not, the elf's watchful eyes can be used to help. "It's really quite effective," she says.
Sara Fillmore, owner of Planet Kids, a boutique store in Toronto, brought home an elf last month for her nine-year-old son Henry.
"He loves it. And I have to say, I have so much fun moving it around," she says.
She has hid the elf in a bowl of leftover Halloween candy, in cupboards with his legs sticking out and other places throughout the house.
Viewed one way, having an elf watching and reporting on your behaviour is kind of creepy. But as one of Mr. Bishop's friends pointed out to him, Santa is already kind of creepy. He knows when you've been sleeping? He knows when you're awake?
Merry Kuchle, a Calgary mother who runs the blog Merry With Children, jokes that it's not the creepy factor parents need to be concerned about, it's the commitment to hiding the elf in a new place every night.
"You come home from a party, and the last thing you're thinking of is your stinking elf. You go to bed and the next morning at five o'clock your eyes pop open and you sit up in bed and you're like, 'Crap, I didn't hide the elf!' So you run downstairs hoping to beat your kids down there and move it to a different place."
Mr. Bishop and his family are having a blast with the elf, he says, but he and his wife plan on adjusting their timing next year.
"We have agreed that next year we're going to adjust the story a bit. I'm sure he'll start asking for the elf earlier, so we'll say, 'No, once you've had him, he doesn't come until the tree comes up," he says. "That way we don't have to spend seven weeks hiding it."