I’m not even going to pretend I liked the Elf on the Shelf when my sister-in-law gifted one to my daughter a few years back. I predicted the bloody thing would spiral off into a ridiculous capitalistic nightmare, and that has come to pass. It’s a movie, you can dress it up, it has pets, there’s even a candy cane grappling hook. It’s like someone took the American Girl franchise and sucked every drop of soul out of it.
Plus, I’m not the first to point out it’s creepy. You’re essentially sneaking into a child’s room to gaslight them into believing a toy is spying on them and moving of its own accord. There are horror movies with this exact premise. Believing in Santa’s naughty and nice list is one thing; bringing a little spy-golem into your home is quite another.
And yet, it might be one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Our Elf’s name is Jewel. Jewel shows up some time between the day after Thanksgiving and the day Daddy remembers where he hid the damn doll. The first year or two, I did my due diligence playing along. I’m a big fan of Christmas magic, even stupid Christmas magic, and my daughter enjoyed the game.
Then one year my father-in-law died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He and my daughter were very close, and the news came to her hard. We hadn’t allowed her to see him near the end. We didn’t want her memory of him to be a sick old man who had trouble remembering his loved ones. We wanted her to only know the man who played ball with her and loved to watch her run. I figured there was time enough in this world to learn the many ways it can be hard and cruel.
This was in the late fall, and I was somewhat at a loss to comfort my daughter. She really wasn’t looking forward to the holidays without her Paw Paw. I don’t remember if it was my wife or I who came up with the idea, but we decided that Jewel would come early that year on a special mission from Santa to be with her.
She was so happy when she woke up, bounding into our room and clutching the Elf. Yes, I know. Kids aren’t supposed to touch them. Whatever. We told her Santa said it was okay because of why she was down here before she normally would. It made her feel better in a way nothing else really did.
The next year, the scene played out yet again. This time, we lost our Boston Terrier to cancer shortly before Thanksgiving. Again, my daughter was inconsolable. This time she asked me if I would petition Santa for Jewel to come early again. I told her I would, and Santa approved the mission. It didn’t put her puppy back at the foot of her bed, but it did re-assert some sense of control over the world.
Fast forward to this year. As Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston, we prepped our walk-in closet to serve as a shelter in case the windows blew in. It was no easy task getting the cats to agree to all be in the small, enclosed space, though normally you can’t open the door without them trying to dive in for whatever wonders stupid cat brains think reside in my closet. When severe warnings would flash on the TV, we would turn everything off, go to the closet, and wait for an all clear.
When it’s not the holidays Jewel lives in a box on a high shelf in that closet. It’s a pretty safe hiding place, but apparently I was not as good at putting her out of sight as I normally am. One way or the other, as my daughter sat with us waiting for the world to possibly end, she looked up and called out the Elf’s name.
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Inside I groaned, but her next words stopped that cold.
“She must have come to check on us for the storm.”
Just like that the Elf, the stupid, Hallmark, money–guzzling Elf, made her sure everything was going to be all right. For us it was. The retention ponds on either side of the apartment complex threatened to top their banks, but didn’t. White Oak Bayou came close to rising to flood levels, but didn’t. Wind hurled debris through the air and could have taken out our windows, but didn’t. We didn’t even lose power except for brief intervals.
The Elf didn’t have anything to do with that of course, but it did make my daughter think it was possible for us to be okay. The Elf is magic to her. We willingly participated in teaching her the concept of magic, and by proxy, hope. She’s growing up fast, and there probably aren’t more than two years left of proper childhood magic, but while we’ve had the Elf that magic has been there when days were dark.