You aren’t imagining things — Christmas’s beady eyes are watching us closer than ever. It sees you when you’re paying 22.8 percent interest on your credit cards. It’s breathing hotly down your neck. It’s opening the doors to your Target earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving night. It’s reporting your thoughts and deeds back to the people who number-crunch the dreaded Consumer Confidence Index. One false move and the entire economy collapses, which will be your fault. Yes, you.
Another November encroachment, relatively ungriped-about, is how much sooner the junky holiday TV specials and cavity-causing Hallmark and Lifetime movies have started. Already I’ve “accidentally” forgotten to review about 10 of them.
But CBS’s animated “The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story,” airing Friday night, deserves a special look, if for no other reason than to study its ability to magnify (and commodify) a Langley-like application of unwarranted surveillance techniques during Christmastime.
Every parent knows: When the household’s youngest miscreants have gone too far, all you have to do at this time of year is reach for the phone and say, “That’s it! I’m calling Santa! I’m telling him what you’ve done. He won’t be happy.” Right away, the reprobates will wail their apologies and promise to do better. (It helps immensely if you follow through with the call. Get mean Uncle Hank to pretend to be Santa’s executive assistant on the other end of the line. “And Mr. Claus would know you frommmm . . . ?”)
Who can resist the holiday fun of scaring the children into good behavior? Ask any of history’s most efficient dictators — they’ll tell you. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the naughty-nice punishment paradigm. Where would this holiday be without its good old-fashioned behavioral paranoia? Charles Dickens may get all the credit for this, but do also consider George Orwell.
That’s what makes “The Elf on the Shelf” so ingeniously successful. Cooked up in 2005 by a mother-daughter duo in Georgia, “The Elf on the Shelf” began as a children’s storybook that came packaged with a benign little elf doll — “a pixie scout” in the tale — togged out in a cute red leotard.
As the story goes, once a family gives their elf a name and places him on a shelf or mantel, he is endowed with magic powers. Beginning around Thanksgiving, the pixie scout watches everything that goes on during the day. At night, he flies back to the North Pole and gives Santa a full account: who behaved, who didn’t.
The elf returns to your house in the dark of morning, before everyone gets up, positioning himself in a different spot from where he was before, so that the children have to find his new vantage point. Also, very important — if anyone in the house touches the elf in any way, he’ll lose his magic. And if that happens, then we’re all royally screwed come Christmas Eve. In other words, it’s no longer Santa Claus who knows if you’ve been bad or good. It’s a whole army of his pixie-scout elves. (All a parent has to do to sustain the fantasy is remember to move the elf each night after the kids have gone to bed.)