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The Elf on the Shelf Is Really Santa's Henchman

Photograph by Getty Images

I’ve got some real problems with the man up there. Yes, God too. But mostly, I mean Santa.

My problems with Santa began this year. My oldest is 3 and she is terrified of the naughty list. I’ve never threatened her with it. I’ve never even mentioned it. But the naughty list is everywhere, perpetuated in songs and story. Cashiers at the store warn my daughter to be good because Santa is watching. All of this list talk has made my daughter, more than once, lose herself into a paroxysm of grief.

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In order to calm her down, I finally told my daughter that there is no naughty list. I told her that we all try, we all do our best and Santa definitely understands.

Except, I’m not sure she believes me. Santa with his behavior-based police state is screwing up my message of love and acceptance. Despite my efforts, I’ve heard my 3-year-old explain to her baby brother that Santa is watching so he better not pull her hair. Once she told him that if he was naughty Santa would only bring him spaghetti (a reviled dish in my house). The baby began sobbing. That Santa is a real fascist.

I’m not the only one who has this problem with the magic of Christmas. In a recent paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Laura Elizabeth Pinto and Dr. Selena Nemorin argue that The Elf on the Shelf is little more than a henchman of the Santa police state. The Elf on the Shelf, if you aren’t familiar, is a whimsical little character who, for the month of December, sits in the homes of obliging parents and watches the children. Every night, the elf reports back to Santa on the behavior of the children. The elf is, of course, sold in stores and comes with a book and accessories. Our dance studio has an elf with a tutu.

The elf is just part of the creepy, punitive and fear-driven history of Christmas.

Pinto and Nemorin contend that The Elf on the Shelf is more than just a fun, innocent tradition. They write, “By inviting The Elf on the Shelf simultaneously into their play-world and real lives, children are taught to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures. Broadly speaking, The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon. In doing so, it contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.”

What Pinto and Nemorin leave out, of course, is that The Elf on the Shelf isn’t the only offender. For centuries parents have been using external forces like ogres, gypsies and God, to reinforce good behavior in children. The bogeyman is the most ubiquitous example of this myth. The bogeyman snatches up and eats naughty children who don’t behave, sleep or listen to their mother. Almost every culture has a bogeyman. In Russia, children are warned of Baba Yaga. German legend hold that Krampus, Santa Claus’ evil counterpart, takes wicked children off to his laid. In Spain, the bogeyman is called El Coco. El Coco carries away naughty children in a large sack.

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Interestingly enough, in the Netherlands, Santa resides in Spain and travels with a black helper or two. And instead of handing out coal, he beats naughty children with a stick and hauls them back to Spain in a large sack. The line between Santa and the bogeyman is really just one of semantics and jolly beards. So, while the elf may indeed be a harbinger of a fascist police state. The elf is just part of the creepy, punitive and fear-driven history of Christmas. Merry Christmas?

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