One morning last December, as our daughter was eating a plate of french toast she said, "Dad, I think Elf on the Shelf is kind of creepy."
We actually had never discussed Elf on the Shelf with our kids, but apparently one of the classrooms at school had an elf that caused some mischief over the weekend, and Evelyn thought it was creepy that the little elf messed with stuff at night and then watched the children all day long.
Understandably, it would be hard to concentrate on math knowing that an elf was staring at you.
But creepiness is not the primary reason we don't have an elf on our shelves at home.
I realize that many of you do, and it might be part of the Christmas season that you enjoy. If that's the case, I respect your choice. But I wanted to share a few thoughts that might be worth considering for a minute or two.
From what I've found on the official website, the Elf is supposed to watch children's behavior all day long and then travel at night back to the North Pole to report to Santa if there has been any misbehavior, thus impacting the gift-giving to those children. And, along the way, the elf causes some mischief in the house.
Now, certainly an elf sitting on a shelf is completely benign and kind of cute.
But my struggle with this tradition is that it teaches our children that Christmas gifts are contingent on behavior.
Some of the most loved Christmas songs from way back bring this message as well...He sees when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
(It is kind of creepy when you think about it...anyone watching you sleep is very creepy...except for God who is our shelter and protection of course.)
We aren't opposed to all things Santa at our home. We don't do Santa gifts, and our kids know he's imaginary, but we don't ignore Santa either. At least half of our Christmas stockings have Santa on them. We talk about the real St. Nick and how he was an awesome Christian man who loved Jesus. Just tonight my 6-year-old daughter gave me a delightful 15 minute concert full of original songs about Santa and Rudolf. We watch Santa movies and listen to Santa songs.
Much of the Santa story can be a fun, imaginative fantasy for a child and that's sweet and innocent.
But we do flat-out reject the whole naughty and nice thing.
About a week before Thanksgiving last year, Evelyn came upstairs with her eyes filled with tears, on the brink of overflowing. With a trembling chin, she confessed what she had done wrong, and then said, "Mom, does this mean I won't get any Christmas presents?"
We have never given any heed in our house to the cultural connection between behavior and Christmas gifts. And yet, because of the cultural influence, she already had it in her mind that her behavior somehow affects our love for her and our desire to give her gifts. This is devastating for a child.
Should we teach them responsibility for their actions? Absolutely. Should we discipline and teach consequences? Absolutely. But does her behavior impact my desire to give her gifts? No.
But goodness the culture is loud at Christmas time, isn't it?
Just a week ago (a full year after the scenario above), even though she knows the truth about Christmas, she came home from school with this letter to Santa:
For Christmas I would like an Elsa Barbie, a new ladybug pillow pet, and crystals.
I was a little naughty this year but I'll try to do better next year.
I opened her homework folder, found this letter, and my heart was crushed. I called her upstairs, sat her down on the couch, and yet again had a heart to heart with her about the love of Jesus, the grace of God, and the truth about Christmas.
It's not that elves sitting on shelves or jolly gift-givers coming down chimneys are in and of themselves destructive. Those things in and of themselves can be delightful childhood fantasies. But the messages that accompany them, that we must "do better next year" in order to receive gifts...that my friend, is destructive.
Of course it's good and right to always try to be better people...more loving, more joyful, more obedient, more self-controlled, more like Jesus. But to think, even as a young child, that we have to "do better" for the sake of "earning gifts" is flat-out heresy and dangerous. A child who grows up thinking he or she needs to earn his/her gifts will likely never understand grace. Because what makes grace grace is that we can never earn it. That's why it's amazing. It's a gift.
Gifts are to be freely given. Gifts are not earned like wages. They are given out of a heart that flows with the love of God. To teach a child that gifts are contingent on behavior is to teach them that love is conditional.
And if we really believe that Christmas gifts are to celebrate the unconditional love of God, then what kind of double message are we sending our kids? God's love might be unconditional, but our love is conditional...so you better be good.
Rather, Christmas is the perfect time to teach children the shocking beauty of God's good gifts. Every gift, big or small, points to the greatest gift of all and celebrates the love of God. God gave us the greatest gift of all - salvation through His Son, Jesus. "But God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8
Did you catch that? While we were still sinners... The greatest gift in the world comes to us in the midst of our sin. When we are naughty, not nice.
If we had an elf on our shelf at home, do you know what it would see? It would see a lot of laughter and joy and children sharing toys and parents giving hugs, yes.
But it would also see me yelling at my kids. It would see me saying, "Hurry up!" way too many times to count. It would see me unreasonably impatient as a little boy struggles to put on boots and mittens. It would see me being selfish and lazy when my child needs some attention and love from Mommy. It would see me saying a bad word here and there, and then it would see my child repeat the bad word Mommy just taught him. It would see me gossiping to my husband or my best friends rather than speaking the truth in love. It would see alot of Mommy being too naughty to deserve presents.
And, it would see my children being naughty too. Because guess what...my children are naughty every day. Certainly not all day, but at times every single day. Every single day they are sinful. Just like me. And just like my husband. So then what? Then do my children, who simply by being human are born into a sinful nature that they cannot on their own overcome, have to be worried all December that there will be no gifts for them under the tree?
Because that's the message that Elf on the Shelf brings. "So be good for goodness sake..."
A couple of weeks ago our family packed gift shoe boxes for children around the world who live in poverty and don't receive Christmas gifts. We talked about how these children are wonderful boys and girls, deeply loved by God, and the reason they don't receive gifts at Christmas has nothing to do with whether they are good or bad. If a child living in poverty, who had never received a Christmas gift, caught wind of the whole "naughty or nice" thing, what would that say to the poor child?
The other staggering problem with all the hoopla about Santa and Elves is that this enormous, fantastical, pretend story is all-consuming and thus distracts kids and adults alike from the greatest story ever told. Immanuel. God with us. God with us. In the flesh. As a baby. In a manger. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14
I mean...no story could be more amazing or wonderful or beyond human imagination as the true story of Christmas. 9 flying reindeer is cute and fun, but God coming down in the flesh as a baby to grow up and die and then conquer death to save His people...that's jaw-dropping.
It's problematic when the Christmas fairy tales become so central that we forget the shocking truth of Christmas.
And the thing is, although there is no elf on my shelf to see me in my worst moments as a mother, or to see my children in their worst disobedience, our Immanuel who sees it all. Every single bit of it. He is "God with us." And not only does He see it all, but He sees everything in my mind and heart too. And let me tell you, there's a lot of sin there. A lot of selfish greed and gossip and hurrying my children and jealousy and love of earthly things and just a whole lot of sin. And God sees it all. That's the whole point of Christmas...that He is here, He has come to be with us, and He dwells in our midst every. single. minute.
And instead of withholding His love and grace from me during my darkest moments, He showers His love on me. Yes, He holds me accountable when I sin, and He expects me to confess and mend relationships whenever possible. But He doesn't withhold His compassion from me. He sends me a Savior in the midst of my sin. He loves me unconditionally in the midst of my sin. When I'm nice, He loves me. And when I'm naughty, He loves me.
And He is so much better than an elf on my shelf.