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The Elf on the Shelf

The Elf on the Shelf
IllustratorCoë Steinwart
PublisherThe Lumistella Company
Publication date
Publication placeUnited States

The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a 2005 American picture book for children, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. The book tells a Christmas-themed story, written in rhyme, that explains how Santa Claus knows who is naughty and nice. It describes elves visiting children from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, after which they return to the North Pole until the next holiday season. The Elf on the Shelf comes in a keepsake box that features a hardbound picture book and a small scout elf. The story was inspired by a family tradition started by Carol Aebersold for her twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts, in Georgia.[1]

The tradition described in the book saw wider adoption as a result of its publication, including being widely shared on social media.[2]


The book tells the story of a scout elf who hides in people's homes to watch over events. Once everyone goes to bed, the scout elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides. By hiding in a new spot around the house each morning, the scout elf plays an ongoing game of hide and seek with the family.

The Elf on the Shelf explains that scout elves get their magic by being named and loved by a child. In the back of each book, families have an opportunity to write their elf's name and the date that they adopted it. Once the elf is named, the scout elf receives its special Christmas magic, which allows it to fly to and from the North Pole.

The book tells how the magic might disappear if the scout elf is touched, so the rule in the book states, "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." Although families are told not to touch their scout elf, they can speak to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes, so that it can report back to Santa accurately.

The story ends on Christmas Day, with the elf leaving to stay with Santa for the rest of the year, until the following Christmas season.

History of publication

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The Elf on the Shelf was written in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. Bell suggested they write a book based on their family tradition of an elf sent from Santa who came to watch over children at Christmas time.[3] Aebersold's other daughter, Christa Pitts, was recruited by the family to share her expertise in sales and marketing. Together, the trio devoted the next three years to promoting their self-published book and attending book signings and trade shows.

The Elf on the Shelf won the Best Toy Award by Learning Express, a Book of the Year Award from Creative Child Awards, and a National Best Books Award sponsored by USA Book News in 2008.

In 2013, the book hit the No. 1 spot on the USA Today bestsellers list.[4] In October 2013, The Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition was released.[5] Written and illustrated by the same team that created the first book, it offers instructions for inviting a scout elf to visit for a child's birthday party and describes how the elf decorates a chair for the child.[citation needed]


The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle calls The Elf on the Shelf "a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition", whose purpose is "to spy on kids". She argues that one shouldn't "bully [one's] child into thinking that good behavior equals gifts."[6] Writing for Psychology Today, David Kyle Johnston calls it a "dangerous parental crutch", akin to what he terms the "Santa lie".[7] Vox published a critique, warning that "the toy can breed competition (and potentially feelings of inadequacy)" and that it added "holiday stress" for parents, as well as calling it "a symbol of the surveillance state disguised as a children's toy".[8]

Many privacy organizations and researchers criticize the product for teaching children that involuntary, non-consensual surveillance is normal.[9] Washington Post reviewer Hank Stuever characterized the concept as "just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes".[10] Professor Laura Pinto suggests that it conditions 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."[11] She argues that, "if you grow up thinking it's cool for the elves to watch me and report back to Santa, well, then it's cool for the NSA to watch me and report back to the government... The rule of play is that kids get to interact with a doll or video game or what have you, but not so with the Elf on the Shelf: The rule is that you don't touch the elf. Think about the message that sends."[12][13]

Other experts have disagreed, suggesting elves encourage children to be kind and compassionate. "The elf is a visual cue to act nice", Judith Tellerman, clinical professor of psychology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Parenting. "It might remind kids not to fight with their brother".[14]

By 2022, sharing photographs on social media of the elf toy in elaborate poses or situations had become a significant part of the Elf on the Shelf experience for some,[2] with parents attempting to outdo one another's displays.[15] Scenarios shared online included the elf using toilet paper to swing from ceiling lights or filling a sink with hot chocolate and marshmallows.[15] One academic noted that "The elf is increasingly being caught doing things a child would get in trouble for doing, which seems to contradict the point of it all."[2]


CBS animated special

On November 26, 2011, a thirty-minute animated special, titled An Elf's Story: The Elf on the Shelf, directed by Chad Eikhoff, aired on CBS.[16][10] The Washington Post criticized the quality of the animation and dismissed it as "just a half-hour advertisement for a book and a toy", which it felt would not join "the canon of prime-time animated Christmas specials that actually move the spirit".[10] Common Sense Media disagreed, calling the special "a great addition to families' holiday TV traditions".[17] However, they also warned parents about the consumer-driven nature of the story and made note of its lack of educational value.[17]

Netflix deal

On October 9, 2020, multiple media outlets reported that Netflix, in partnership with the Lumistella Company, was developing "series, movies, and specials" based on The Elf on the Shelf.[18][19][20] The content would be produced by Roy Lee and Miri Yoon, "including original live-action and animated series and movies for pre-school audiences as well as families".[21]

Food Network reality television show

On October 3, 2023, TheWrap reported that Food Network had developed a reality television show titled The Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown, which premiered on November 19, 2023.[22] Hosted by Duff Goldman, it follows "six teams of what the series is dubbing Sweetmakers for the chance to win $25,000 and the title of the Ambassadors of Confectionery Concoctions. Each week, teams will be challenged to create holiday-themed edible showpieces." Judges included Kardea Brown and Next Great Baker winner Ashley Holt.[23]

Other appearances and products

Elf on the Shelf dolls are typically available with different skin tones and genders. In 2007, a photograph of Jennifer Garner carrying a product box led to a segment on the Today show, driving an increase in sales.[8]

In 2012, The Elf on the Shelf made its first appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, alongside fellow parade newcomers Hello Kitty and Papa Smurf.[24]

In April 2014, two supplemental birthday products were released: the Elf on the Shelf Birthday Countdown Game and the Elf on the Shelf Birthday Chair Decoration Kit.[25] These are examples of over 150 products licensed by the Lumistella Company, which as of 2023 had sold more than 22.5 million Elf on the Shelf dolls.[26]

In 2019, the Elf on the Shelf brand was extended to a live stage musical, Kellogg's food products, and activities at IHOP restaurants.[27]

In 2023, the Lumistella Company partnered with Beaches Resorts to offer "V.I.E." ("very important elf", a reference to VIP) packages, "butler-curated perks at all three Beaches Resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos".[28]

As of 2023, Forbes estimated the Lumistella Company generated annual revenues of $100 million, while co-CEOs Bell and Pitts were estimated to have a personal fortune of around $50 million.[26]


In 2013, Neil Hoffman created the toy and book The Mensch on a Bench, featuring a plush Jewish mensch character.[29]

Other rhyming jokes became popular in internet memes in 2017,[30] after a Tumblr user named "dankmemeuniversity" shared an image of an action figure of Ash Ketchum from Pokémon in a trash bin. It was captioned "You've heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for...", encouraging other users to rhyme "Ash in the trash",[31][32] an example of a snowclone. The post was reblogged over 180,000 times. Another Tumblr user, "Kawaii Rain", built on the joke with a picture of an action figure of Link from The Legend of Zelda in a sink. Over time, the meme spread beyond gaming references to other genres and celebrities.[33][34][35][36][37]

See also


  1. ^ Kavilanz, Parija (November 21, 2017). "Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is 11 million elves strong". CNNMoney.
  2. ^ a b c Morris, Steven (December 17, 2023). "Elf on the shelf trend likened to 'poltergeist visits' as parents feel social media pressure". The Guardian. Retrieved December 17, 2023.
  3. ^ Herbst, Christina (November 21, 2021). "What Is Elf on the Shelf, and How Does It Work?". Retrieved October 30, 2023.
  4. ^ [1] Archived April 15, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "'The Elf on the Shelf': How the brand evolved over 17 years". November 9, 2021. Retrieved October 30, 2023.
  6. ^ You're a Creepy One, Elf on the Shelf Archived December 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine in The Atlantic, December 6, 2012.
  7. ^ David Kyle Johnston, Let's Bench the Elf on the Shelf. Psychology Today, December 19, 2012.
  8. ^ a b McKinney, Kelsey (December 10, 2014). "The Elf on the Shelf is the greatest fraud ever pulled on children". Vox. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  9. ^ Victor, Daniel (December 23, 2021). "Beware the Elf on a Shelf, Privacy Watchdogs Warn". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  10. ^ a b c Hank Stuever (November 24, 2011). "CBS's 'Elf on the Shelf': Unwarranted Christmas surveillance techniques". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 25, 2013.[dead link]
  11. ^ "Who's the Boss?". Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Archived from the original on December 7, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017.
  12. ^ Craig Johnson, Does the Elf contribute to the surveillance state?., December 1, 2014. Archived December 15, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Kyle Olsen, Prof: ‘Elf on the Shelf' conditions kids to accept surveillance state Archived December 15, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. Education Action Group Foundation, Inc., December 15, 2014.
  14. ^ Bender, Rachel (December 9, 2015). "5 Traits That Elf on the Shelf Promotes". Yahoo News. Retrieved October 25, 2023.
  15. ^ a b Cope, Emily (December 22, 2022). "'I wish I'd never started Elf on the Shelf – it's hell': Has it all gone too far?". Retrieved December 23, 2023.
  16. ^ "An Elf's Story". The Elf on the Shelf. Archived from the original on November 7, 2013. Retrieved December 4, 2013.
  17. ^ a b "The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf's Story". November 18, 2011. Archived from the original on April 15, 2014. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  18. ^ "'Elf on the Shelf' to get Netflix series, movies, and specials galore". Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  19. ^ Sneider, Jeff (October 9, 2020). "New Elf on the Shelf Movies, TV Shows Are Coming to Netflix". Collider. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  20. ^ Rubin, Rebecca (October 9, 2020). "'Elf on the Shelf' Movies and TV Shows Are Coming to Netflix". Variety. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  21. ^ Sneider, Jeff (October 9, 2020). "New Elf on the Shelf Movies, TV Shows Are Coming to Netflix". Collider. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  22. ^ Cobb, Kayla (October 3, 2023). "Food Network Launches 'The Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown' (Exclusive)". TheWrap. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  23. ^ "'The Elf on the Shelf: Sweet Showdown' Is Coming to Food Network". Entertainment Tonight. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  24. ^ Cauley, H. M. "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade adds Elf on the Shelf". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ISSN 1539-7459. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  25. ^ Yost, Russell (September 22, 2021). "The History of Elf on the Shelf". Retrieved October 30, 2023.
  26. ^ a b "The staggering figures behind the Elf on the Shelf business". December 4, 2023. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  27. ^ Decker, Vivienne. "Meet the Family Behind 'The Elf on the Shelf' and 13 Million Scout Elves". Forbes. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  28. ^ McInnis, Kaitlyn. "Beaches Resorts Is Now Offering a Special Package for Your Kids' Elf on the Shelf". Forbes. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  29. ^ Kiefaber, Adam. "Move over Elf, the Mensch on a Bench is here". USA TODAY. Retrieved January 30, 2024.
  30. ^ Kircher, Madison Malone (September 15, 2017). "You've Heard of Elf on the Shelf, Now Get Ready for a Meme with a Rhyme Scheme". Intelligencer. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  31. ^ "Rhyming Elf on the Shelf Memes Are Taking Over the Internet". TIME. September 18, 2017. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  32. ^ "You've heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for". tumblr.
  33. ^ Alexander, Julia (September 18, 2017). "Elf on the Shelf rhyming competition-turned-meme started with Pokémon, Zelda". Polygon. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  34. ^ "'Grease' on a Reese? Celebs put their own spin on 'Elf on the Shelf' viral meme". Los Angeles Times. December 8, 2020. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  35. ^ Navarro, Heather (December 1, 2022). "Elf on the Shelf Ideas in Pictures, Plus Where it All Began". NBC Los Angeles. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  36. ^ Kelly, Tiffany (September 18, 2017). "If you loved 'Elf on the Shelf,' you'll love this new meme". The Daily Dot. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
  37. ^ Bowman, Jordan (September 18, 2017). "Elf on the Shelf has become a rhyming, ridiculous meme". Mashable. Retrieved December 15, 2023.
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The Elf on the Shelf
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