A few years ago, a friend gave me a shelf elf. I set it in front of a row of books with sprigs of greenery. The first to notice was a little piano student. Lily was a favorite of mine: tossle-headed, very theatrical, a deep feeler and often hilarious. She played her little songs with the flair (if not precision) of Carnegie Hall and then swung around on the bench to chat about whatever caught her eye around the room. We were often delightfully off-track. She was the first to spot my elf. When I went to fetch it, thinking she’d like to hold it, she shrieked, “Don’t touch him! You will die!”
Apparently, this old toy has a new twist: the elves now move during the night, on their own, and they punish you horribly for interfering. I didn’t know what to do with Lily’s hysterical warning. Should I desist, return to the lesson, and let the weird holiday legend persist? Should I bring the elf down, hold it awhile and show her it was perfectly safe? Should I recoil, then pretend to grab the elf against my will, stagger back, toss it like a fireball from hand to hand, start to choke, collapse on the rug writhing and then lay stiff for several moments? I’m sorry to say I don’t remember what I did. I’ve always hoped it was the latter. Lily would have broken into peals of horrified laughter, and I would forever be enshrined as her Best Teacher Ever.
But seriously, this new tradition stymies me. I got a first edition elf in 1968, and it was simply meant to be a decorative toy. It did, like many dolls, come wrapped in some ambiguity. The rubbery head on a disproportionate body. Wide eyes staring at nothing. Ever-grinning without looking friendly. Crunchy sound when squeezed. A rectangular torso and an odd little bottom for perching. A cord on its head for hanging on the tree, which was a bit scaffold-like, the way the face stayed frozen but the legs kept swinging.
We each had one: mine was red, brother Randy’s was green, and Kevin’s had vertical stripes (the possible convict?). As far as I know, the boys never played with theirs. I tried, but there wasn’t much to do: tuck and untuck the noodly legs, jingle the little bell, have a contest to see which elf could sit longest before tipping. Even that wasn’t much fun because the losers just kept grinning. And you couldn’t pretend they conversed, heavens no; their long noses were poised to peck.
Nowadays, the shelf elf is marketed all over the place. There was even one in the Macy’s parade, a massive balloon with a hundred elf-men holding it steady (none dropping dead). The toy has been such a sensation that scientists have researched its sociological effect. I read one report titled “WHY THE SHELF ELF COULD MAKE YOUR CHILDREN PARANOID.” According to experts at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, the ubiquitous elf “puts children under a constant state of surveillance, manipulating behavior in a negative way.”
The Canadians are usually more helpful than this. The trouble isn’t bad parenting. It’s not even fear of the inanimate animating behind our backs ("Toy Story" has cured most children of that). We’ve already taught a whole generation to reject the idea of omniscient moral surveillance and have trained them to be their own judges of bad or good. I propose that the real fright is the mere idea of supernatural interference.
What, after all, is an elf? I personally reject the modernist, who has made it pseudo-cute, marketable, and (apparently) Freudian. I say return to the bookshelf. Take down the old stories, where the Grimm brothers’ malevolent imp torments a poor man’s flock, and Tolkien’s cool sage foresees a king’s destiny. Side by side, these elvish tales clash and join: dark earthy paganism and bright celestial holiness. Both are dreadful. Both are Christmas.
Someone posted a photograph of a shelf elf against an array of their own books. By chance, one half-hidden spine says To Jerusalem. Happily for this writer, it suggests the older story. If we pay attention to our Gospel readings, we move in the dark of night between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We overhear malevolent plotting, then a glad song about prophecy fulfilled. We see swords, scared herdsmen, stars and the wandering sages who read them. We are warned, in the turning of those pages, against recoiling from the destiny of that child whom—if he were here now in plain view—we would surely wish to touch.