CBS’s ‘Elf on the Shelf’: Unwarranted Christmas surveillance techniques

November 24, 2011

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.)

Rejected by publishers far and wide, “The Elf on the Shelf’s” creators decided to self-produce the book and doll that goes with it. In six years, they’ve reportedly sold more than 2 million book-elf packages.

* * *

The cartoon version airing on CBS brings all this to computer-generated life, which is, of course, barely any life at all. The animation reminds you of the kind seen in allergy-relief commercials, and yet so much tender, loving care apparently went into “The Elf on the Shelf”: Hundreds of animators in India worked on it — the credits are packed with Deepaks. (And Vikrams, Abhijeets, Rakeshes, Sandeeps, Neelus; an endless parade of names reminding us that nothing outsources itself quite like Christmas can.)

At the North Pole, an eager pixie scout (voiced by Brendan Dooling) receives his first assignment, but Santa Claus warns him that it’s a doozy: At the suburban McTuttle house, it seems as though young Taylor McTuttle is on the threshold of “not believing.”

Not believing in what? The existence of Santa Claus, a viewer assumes, but also a belief in all of it, whatever it is. Like all secular expressions of the holiday, “The Elf on the Shelf” steers far clear of religious faith, insisting instead on a broadly defined system of “believing” in Christmas — vague yet ethically unobjectionable ideals.

The pixie scout is boxed up and delivered to the McTuttle house, where a blase Taylor — who appears, cartoonically, to be about 10 years old, precisely the proper age to “get it” about Santa Claus, etc. — shows hostility toward the Elf on the Shelf.

But Taylor’s twin sisters and parents are overjoyed by the elf’s inert presence, and the family (through song; through the worst sort of prefabricated song) perform the ritual of naming their elf: Chippey.

Thus magicalized, Chippey flies home that night to deliver his initial findings: Taylor is irredeemably skeptical about Christmas beliefs. Can he be saved?

Of course he can. “Christmas is a time for forgiveness,” the McTuttle family sings, in a loop of illogical (though empirical) reasoning: “That’s why we all believe in Christmas.”

The real failure here is that “The Elf on the Shelf’s” own cynicism — at its heart, it’s just a half-hour advertisement for a book and a toy — prevents it from joining the canon of prime-time animated Christmas specials that actually move the spirit. That’s okay. The bar set by Charlie Brown, Dr. Seuss and Rankin/Bass is quite high; few will ever achieve it, but plenty try each holiday season. Most fail for the same antiseptic reasons that “Elf on the Shelf” does.

* * *

But while we’re here, I find myself fascinated by “The Elf on the Shelf’s” success as a warmhearted disciplinary tool.

I first heard of the shelf-elf phenomenon five Christmases ago, when I was working on a book about modern Christmas traditions in a typical American suburb. Two days after Christmas, a municipal waste engineer drove me out to the county landfill (it was that sort of Christmas book), and on the way, he told me about “The Elf on the Shelf” and the amazing, even sweet way in which it had calmed down his hyperactive daughter’s frenetic anticipation for Christmas. The next holiday season, I saw “The Elf on the Shelf” (and imitators) everywhere, from church holiday bazaars to Barnes & Noble.

The concept of an omniscient and judgmental Santa (and his deputized elves) tracks with the evolution of American-style Christmas in the 19th century. As noted by historian Stephen Nissenbaum (in “The Battle for Christmas”) and others, Christmas in our nation’s early days was a lawless melee, in which the impoverished lower classes would riot if they were not appeased by booze and other treats given to them by their bosses and wealthier neighbors.

It was well-off New Yorkers of the early-to-mid-1800s who found refuge in repurposing the holiday as a family-minded, nominally religious retreat from social mayhem. The modernized morality of Dickens and other storytellers emphasized Christmas as a time to do good, to calm down, to behave. In such households, some theorize, the children assumed a role previously reserved for the town beggars: By staying out of trouble, they got a Christmas treat from a jolly old elf. Later came the songs and folklore about the 24-7 surveillance from the North Pole.

And so it’s worked for nearly two centuries, so long as you don’t think about it too much. “The Elf on the Shelf” is just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes. As long as you believe in him, the pixie-scout elf is no different than the store security camera and the gizmo that automatically generates speeding tickets. The tattle-tale elf, who reports back to the corporate Christmas machine, fits right in with our times.

The Elf on the Shelf:
An Elf’s Story

(30 minutes) airs Friday at 8:30 p.m.

on CBS.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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