by Torey Lightcap
Judging by photos and commentary, many of my Facebook friends’ homes appear to have been invaded by the Elf on the Shelf. Ours has, too.
For the uninitiated, Elf on the Shelf is a small “scout” elf with rosy plastic cheeks, long arms and legs made from felt, and cherubic eyes that are open to seeing everything. He comes in a box with a book that explains where he came from and what he does.
The story goes like this: you take the elf out of the box and name him, and then prop him up some place where he can be witness to the goings-on in your house. These activities, be they naughty or nice, are carefully noted by your elf, who flies to the North Pole each night in the run-up to Christmas and informs Santa about how the children are behaving. Santa may take these things into account in consideration of a whether and how to grant a child his or her Christmas list. The elf returns from the North Pole and reseats himself for another day’s observation prior to daybreak (at some houses selecting a new vantage point from which to see, judge, and report). The routine goes on from some time after Thanksgiving all the way to – what, Christmas Eve, I suppose.
When you break it down, the Elf on the Shelf just seems like classic behavior modification – the 2012 version of “You better watch out, you better not cry.” You want a little peace in the house, and incentives can powerfully work to achieve that end. My wife and I did think about that; we talked about it before we took our little elf out of the box and went through the routine of introducing him, naming him as a family (“Felly” is his name), reading the book about him, and placing him in a spot where his view would be good. After all, we have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old: if we can just keep the yelling down in our house for even a few weeks, it’s worth having Felly as a house guest, right?
But there’s a problem. I have come to recognize a key error in the thought process that drives the Elf on the Shelf, or indeed any form of Christmas related behavior modification.
Because I spend part of my sermon prep time each week with ELCA Lutherans (and I thank God for it), I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the myriad uses of the concepts law and grace. I am at best an armchair theologian with respect to these ideas, but I find them creeping into my usual thought process these days.
Would it be fair to say that the Elf on the Shelf is an instance of the common cultural law around Christmas – the simple idea that in the end, behaving well gets us closer to the material reward we wanted all along? If that’s a fair assumption, then wouldn’t it also be true that while we would all love for our children to act better, holding to the party line about “naughty or nice” in just about any form is also an enactment of the common cultural law of Christmas? What do we risk gaining or losing when rewards for good behavior and punishments for poor behavior are the main concern of the approach to Christmas morning?
By contrast, what if the Elf on the Shelf became something different – something more grace-filled? If he weren’t saddled with a perspective of law, or was somehow freed from it, what might the elf Felly of the Lightcap home come to represent?
I’d been pondering this some yesterday, in a mostly unconscious way, when we had a little evening dust-up. The kids were tired and easily irritated, and one of them decided to expend what was left of her energy on the other one in an annoying sort of way. When the explosion occurred, I found myself marching all parties to where Felly was perched and noiselessly pointing to him. Appealing to policy, in other words. Appealing to the law.
The implication: “Felly is watching, and what you just did is going to whittle away at your chances for good presents.” The response: a mournful “I forgot.”
The question immediately and shamefully arose: Why would I possibly want to turn something cool and magical into an act of accounting? When the presents have already been bought? When I’m not really planning to hold things back on Christmas morning anyway? Why?
That little thought landed like a splinter in my conscience. By morning it was a full-on hammer.
Christmas is about the manifestation and incarnation of a God who loves us beyond measure or reason. A God who longs to mercifully tabernacle within the creation and does so. Do we revere that incarnation and seek to emulate it in our lives with gracious living, or do we ruthlessly attempt to measure it out and hoard it for ourselves, for the sake of convenience? “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, and maybe that’s just another way of imaging Christmas.
[Mercy] droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest.
What I want to know today is, How is God going to use Felly to accomplish God’s good purposes in Advent? How will Felly help our family to further prepare a place within ourselves for God’s gracious presence to come and tabernacle and be announced? How will the Elf on the Shelf demand, cajole, invite us to deeper and deeper transformation and peace? What turns will we need to make in our family’s common life to see this graciousness at work?
Clearly, it’s a story yet to be completed. It will find itself in us and in our living the remainder of the season. I just know that I’m happy to suffer the inconvenience of the narrative having to be changed if it gets us all a little closer to the heart of Advent.
And yes, I do hope Felly’s watching that, too.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.