December is almost upon us, and with it come the flashing lights, technicolour tat, unwieldy wishlists, mountains of mince pies — and now, a relatively new (and, in my view, unwelcome) ‘tradition’.
Acquainted with Elf on the Shelf? If so, I’d hazard a guess you’re in your mid-30s or early 40s with children still young enough to believe in Father Christmas. You’re also something of an Instagram or Facebook fanatic, subliminally influenced by the stream of perfectly posed, heavily filtered, envy-inducing photos.
For that’s where the small, puppet-like doll will soon be popping up — as it did last year. Indeed, you’re more likely to see pictures of the omnipresent elves than Father Christmas himself clogging up social media feeds daily.
This festive toy phenomenon began in America as a bribe to improve children’s behaviour during the run-up to Christmas. But it’s rapidly become yet another vehicle for spoiling kids and teaching them that consumerism is all.
Kitty Dimbleby believes the Elf on the Shelf craze is placing added pressure on parents
It started as a children’s story of how Santa (or Father Christmas, as we call him) sends a ‘scout’ elf to check whether children are being ‘naughty or nice’ in the run-up to the Big Day. The book is sold with an elf puppet for parents to recreate the tale at home.
From December 1 until Christmas Eve, once the little darlings are in bed, parents place the elf in different locations around the house (posed doing something funny or naughty), so that he is somewhere new when they wake up.
Children are told the elf is magic and flies to the North Pole each night to report back to the big man, hence why he moves position each night.
Some parents also opt to leave small presents alongside the elf.
So not only do children receive a deluge of gifts on Christmas Day, they can now expect 24 ‘little’ ones — good behaviour pending.
The original tale was created by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell in 2005, inspired by their own family tradition. The authors stress that the elves are not bought, but ‘adopted’ — the retail outlets selling the toys are called ‘adoption centres’.
But this comes at a price. At John Lewis, the charming tradition (read: marketing ploy) will set you back £26.99 for the book and elf.
There’s also the option of a female elf.
Really enthusiastic parents (otherwise known as ‘those with more money than sense’) can splash out £12.95 on elf outfits from the ‘Claus Couture Collection’.
There are also elf pets, such as a reindeer, selling for £12 to £25.
On the official Elf on the Shelf website, there are countless extras offered to help you part with your cash — or, as they put it, ‘keep the magic going’ — from a Letters To Santa ‘kit’ at £24.99 (what happened to paper and felt-tip pens?), to Elf on the Shelf bedding.
It’s not just the horribly commercial aspect that troubles me, but also the added pressure on parents already under siege at Christmas.
Who has the time to trawl Pinterest to come up with a new ‘funny’ place or activity for the smug-looking snitch each evening? I just about manage to remember to brush my teeth before bed.
But it seems I’m in a minority, and I am bracing myself for the social media deluge.
Since I’m a notorious over-sharer on Instagram, I make no judgment but to say: if this is meant to be something for the children, then why all the online posts?
Perhaps (whisper it!) some enjoy showing off what ‘fun’ parents they are.
So, this year, much as it might make me horribly unpopular with my five and two-year-olds, I’m refusing to bow to the elf peer pressure. Instead, I’ve got them both a traditional advent calendar in an attempt to teach them that we try to be ‘good’ because it’s the best way to be, rather than in order to receive gifts.
I will also be doing a reverse advent calendar. For each day of December, we’ll fill an empty box, selected from their toys, our wardrobes and kitchen cupboards, to give to those who need the contents more than we do.
Sadly, I suspect this idea will be slightly slower to catch on.