The Elf on the Shelf is a remix of two Christmas 'traditions'.
In the 1950s Japanese shelf elves, sometimes called 'knee-huggers', were popular Christmas decorations. They are overly sweet-faced and elfin dolls with large eyes and sickeningly sweet smiles (image). These have thankfully fallen out of fashion, but are still familiar to generations of Americans.
And in the early 1960s author Flora Johnson wrote a rather unremarkable book by the name of Christopher Pop-In-Kins Pops In, which would have gone unnoticed if it were not accompanied by a rag-doll elf. Kids loved the idea of an elf visiting during Christmas, and Christopher Pop-In-Kins is still produced today, still a minor tradition nearly 30 years later. Because Christopher Pop-In-Kins was indeed a tradition in many families (and because the doll was not originally of very great quality), a no-touching rule was introduced early on.
The Elf on the Shelf is simply the combination of the Shelf Elf doll with the Christopher Pop-In-Kins concept plus a good dollop of marketing.
I have not read The Elf on the Shelf, and do not find any part of the doll, story, or book in the least bit appealing. HOWEVER, some kids in my school have an Elf on the Shelf running about in their homes, and I have to admit, it sounds like a lot of fun.
There is a bit of a cult on-line consisting of parents thinking up cool things to do with The Elf for (generally) the month proceeding Christmas. The Elves in my neighborhood have:
- Appeared in odd places (of course), including backpacks, the front stoop, the refrigerator, etc.
- Been found posed with other toys, including Barbie in her convertible and superheroes engaged in rescuing some hapless toy.
- Made a mess in the kitchen, making snow (flour) angels or stealing candy.
- Set up a birthday tableau for a child with a December birthday.
- Took a picture of himself with a digital camera.
- Hung up the family's underwear in place of stockings.
- TP'd the Christmas tree
While the idea that a small, demonically cheerful homunculus is spying on you and reporting back to Santa is less than appealing, the idea that a doll is playing on its own, and moreover, doing things that you can't (but would like to) is pretty cool, and apparently especially so if you are 5-8 years old. I think that it is even cooler for those kids who have an inkling that it is actually their parents who have the mischievous sense of humor, and not the creepy elf doll. I don't really see any way that this tradition benefits from being tied to Christmas... But I am a notorious Scrooge. I certainly think that this is one of those activities that is best undertaken without buying the standard kit.
It appears that most of the ideas that the parents at my school are using come from this blog. But half the fun must be in thinking up new things for your elf to do on your own.