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Elf on the Shelf: Where Did This Holiday Tradition Come From?

Author Chanda Bell shares how her favorite childhood tradition became known—and celebrated—worldwide. 

Chanda Bell, Carol Aebersold and Christa Pitts attend 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Credit: John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty I

Now that my husband and I had a two-year-old son, Christmas, along with its traditions, meant more to me than ever. Taylor was getting old enough for me to start making sense of some of them for him. After all, our traditions—at this time of year, especially—were supposed to help us be the best we could be in God’s eyes, so that our hearts would be open to him and the gift he gave us that very first Christmas.

One morning we got up early to see Santa and do some shopping. The mall was a zoo, but it was worth it to see Taylor sitting on Santa’s lap. “Santa again!” he said when his turn was over. I tried to explain we’d see him next year, but Taylor would have none of that. “Santa now!”

Santa Claus had gotten Taylor excited about Christmas, but I wanted to shape that into something meaningful. “You’re a good boy,” I told him. “Santa is proud of you. Like God is.”

An overnight visit at my mother’s finally got Taylor’s mind off Santa. “Elf, see elf!” he shouted as we gave Gran a hug and headed into the living room. There sat Mom’s elf. The same elf that had been a favorite part of Christmas during my childhood was visiting from the North Pole.

Mom explained to Taylor, “Right after Thanksgiving that elf came to our house all the way from Santa’s workshop. He has been coming here since your mom was little. Sometimes he sat on the bookcase in the living room, other times he chose the kitchen or a bedroom to hide in.”

“My brother and sister used to race each other out of bed every morning to see where he was,” I said. “The elf’s job was to talk to Santa and tell him if we’d been good. If we forgot our bedtime prayers, or didn’t get along with one another, the elf would fill Santa in. We tried hard to be good and practiced all year round so we’d be ready for the elf’s watchful eye.”

A collection of Elves on a ShelfThat night, after I finished tucking Taylor into bed, I went downstairs. Mom had brewed tea. “Taylor is sure taken with that elf,” I said.

“Perhaps you should call the North Pole and get an elf for your house to remind him to be a sweet, responsible boy. Like God wants him to be.”

“Hmmm, not a bad idea.” I thought about all the parents I knew who struggled as much as I did to teach their kids right from wrong. “Every family, including mine, would benefit from an elf visit at Christmastime!”

“I bet Santa would partner with us!” Mom said playfully. And that gave me an idea: “Maybe he would even let us write a story that he could send along with the elves!” We both chuckled, feeling like we had stumbled onto something special. “We’ll write it so all parents and children can understand the lesson of the Christmas elf.”

Since then, families all over the world have read The Elf on the Shelf and made it a Christmas tradition of their own. I like to think the elves make a parent’s job—and Santa’s—a little easier.

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