“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet, the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men!” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Make no mistake, no matter what particular phase of life I have been in; child, teenager, adult, in a relationship, single, before kids, with kids, whatever…I have ALWAYS loved Christmas. Regardless of being a non-practicing nothing currently, and earlier generations having been formerly kind of sometimes practicing Catholics, Christmas, since from the time I was little, has always been a very secular celebration. There may have been the occasional crèche mixed in among the decorations, but the holiday has always been primarily about three things: family, food, and traditions.
When I was little, my parents always had Christmas morning at our home, the three (for those five glorious years), then the four, then the five of us. Presents, stockings, egg and bacon. Afterward, we gathered at my maternal grandparents’ home, along with my aunts and uncles. We listened to the “Alvin and The Chipmunks” Christmas album, ate canned pears dyed green and red, cracked walnuts with my grandfather and then drove home, exhausted and squished between my two brothers.
When I was a teen and we had moved to New Jersey from upstate New York, the yearly Christmas journey to my grandparents’ house went by the wayside. We established new traditions. We were all together, of course. My mom made this amazing fish chowder every Christmas Eve, we decorated cookies, and always got to open one present on Christmas Eve.
Now that I’m an adult with children of my own, with extended family scattered around, we have established new traditions. The holiday season kicks off the day after Thanksgiving, when my kids make gingerbread houses with my mother-in-law. Closer to Christmas, we have what we call “Alternate Christmas” at my parents’ house, when we gather with my brothers and their families a week or so before Christmas, thereby eliminating any stress with work schedules and allowing my siblings to spend Christmas in their own homes.
Several years ago, a new tradition was foisted upon us by a thoughtful relative. I’m sure most of you know what I’m referring to by the title of this piece. That’s right, the m*&#%$@!?^ing Elf on a Shelf, aka “Rico” aka One More Thing I Have To Do Because I’m Not Already Overextended Enough.
I hate him. His rosy cheeks, his cheery smile, the cheeky way he holds his knees in his hands, the way he looks at me, judging me, daring me to forget that he takes that trip every night to the North Pole and back and always lands in a different spot upon his return.
My parents have one of the “vintage” elves, a leftover from their childhood, formerly known as “knee hugging elves”, which were mass-produced in the 1950’s and 60’s. When I saw the knee hugging elf reincarnated as the Elf on the Shelf, my jaw dropped. This was just some kitschy decoration of Christmas past, why is this now a thing?
The very concept irritates me; this elf appears after Thanksgiving to monitor children’s behavior and reports back to Santa. I’ve irritated myself, because I’m totally guilty of saying, “Is THIS what you want Rico to tell Santa about how you’re behaving??” and immediately smacking myself in the head afterward. What is this teaching my kids? That they can behave like complete monsters 11 months out of the year, but as long as they are good for the few weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s all good?
And of course, in the past six years or so, The Elf has been elevated to superstar status. There are websites and pinterest pages dedicated to all things Elf. And the product manufacturers and marketers were savvy enough to not just stop with the book and original Elf. There are now girl elves, elves with lighter and darker skin tones, and even a flipping reindeer elf. And clothing! What the…? I was suckered into purchasing a tuxedo jacket for Rico this year during an event at the local big book store. I don’t know why I bought it without giving much thought to it. My kid was delighted by it, it was crowded and hot and noisy, and I just fell for the gimmick.
Here’s the thing:
Do you see it? No, I’m not talking about the bourbon that Rico is leaned up against, although that is also something of my own holiday tradition. The jacket has those two little sleeves. And Rico’s HANDS ARE CONNECTED. Are you kidding me???? A friend has a simple solution; just snip the hands apart, put on the outfit and sew them back together. Then she said, “You do have a sewing kit, don’t you?” I looked at her, and we laughed. Just no. Well, maybe. I might do it. I probably will. Because Rico would really look cute in that tuxedo jacket and it won’t take me but five minutes, not counting the half hour or so it will take me to locate a sewing kit before giving up and going to the store and buying one. Where do they even sell those?
Nevermind, I’ll figure it out. What was I complaining about? Oh, the Elf. I get so distracted this time of year. I guess he’s not so bad after all. Until the next time I forget to move him and my 6-year-old gets distressed like she did the other day and looks up at me with her huge grey eyes and says, “Why didn’t Rico move? I was really good yesterday, Mama, wasn’t I?” and I’ll tell her, “It’s because your sister was bad,” or some other similarly awful statement that will have me staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, counting my parenting fails and cursing that little elf.
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