Elf on the Shelf is Optional

My children feel like the only ones in the world to whom Santa does not send an “Elf on the Shelf.” They are eternally bitter about it. And I relish it.

To any parents out there who feel obligated to do Elf on the Shelf but your heart isn’t in it, this article is for you. I am releasing you from your obligation, and I will atone you of your guilt.

Our Elf story begins back when my older children were three and two years old. It was just beginning to be all the rage. I had seen it sold in stores and I knew right away it wasn’t something I wanted to add to our holiday tradition. I’m not a Scrooge. I just know myself. I wouldn’t follow through.

But one day, a co-worker of my mother delivered an Elf to my doorstep with all the bells and whistles. She rung the bell and ran away, letting it appear that the Elf had magically arrived. The girls ran to the door and discovered it. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. 

So that one year, we had a very mediocre Elf named Jolly. Or was it Holly? I’m not sure we never even settled the name. She moved around maybe six times that December. The girls absolutely loved it.

But after Christmas, as I was packing up the decorations, I knew that Jolly/Holly wasn’t coming back the next year. So I did something very ecologically shameful: I threw the Elf in the outside trash can. 

The next Christmas, the girls mentioned the Elf a couple of times. “Remember that Elf? When is she coming back?” To which I would feign innocence and say, “I don’t know! Let’s wait and see!” 

And the next few Christmases, the same conversation would occur. Always wondering why our Elf never returned. Wondering if maybe they just weren’t good enough for an Elf. I let them sit with that, as I tapped my fingertips together like a true villain. 

Last year, my (now three) daughters were bemoaning the fact that they are the ONLY ONES in their classes who don’t have an Elf on the Shelf. They were terribly upset by this. The injustice was too much to bear. They asked us to please explain why Santa doesn’t send them an Elf. My husband offered up a possibility: “Maybe you girls are so well behaved that Santa doesn’t need an Elf to keep an eye on you.” And without skipping a beat, my four-year old announced, “I’ll be bad.” (Oh, the third child!)

Here’s the thing. I don’t feel one ounce of pity for them. It is so good for them to feel on the outs every now and then. These girls have everything life has to offer. They don’t go hungry, they have cute clothes, they get everything they need and plenty of what they want. 

But as they grow older and enter the teenage years, I plan on them feeling very familiar with being THE ONLY ONE. THE ONLY ONE who doesn’t have a cell phone. THE ONLY ONE who doesn’t get to go to the overnight co-ed after party thing. (Do those still happen? Please say no…)

When I decided to donate the Elf on the Shelf to the dump, I wasn’t thinking about future prom nights. I was only thinking about myself. Which, as a mom, is very undervalued.

I was having enough trouble getting through the days with small children. I didn’t want to add the pressure of the Elf. Because as you all know, it’s really not enough to move it to a new location every day (except it is!). You really should display the Elf being caught in new and hilarious scenes of trouble making and mess-making every single night. 

My family celebrates Advent during the month of December, and faithfully doing that is a discipline of its own that I care about doing well. But it is very hard to follow through. Every day there’s a scripture, a prayer, a candle lighting, a song. Sometimes a prompt for doing something for other people. It’s a lot to add to our already busy lives. But that is the kind of thing that’s worth the effort for me. I don’t want to use my time in December cleaning up glitter from our Elf’s latest hurrah. 

My point is: decide what you value. Determine if you have the follow-through. And don’t feel pressured to do something for your kids just because “everyone else is doing it.” 

One day my kids will find out the truth about what happened to Holly/Jolly. And they will roll their eyes and they won’t be surprised at all, because they know me pretty well. And hopefully they will admit that their Christmases were full of magic anyway, because we celebrated the things that matter to us. 

I grew up in Dallas, went to college and grad school in the Carolinas (Furman-->Wake Forest) with degrees in art history and ministry/theology. I work for organizations that allow me to do things I care deeply about: advocacy for immigration, public education and religious liberty. We moved to San Antonio in 2012 for my husband to pastor a church here. When we moved here, our two older daughters were babies/toddlers, and we eventually added a third. They are now 5, 8 and 9. We chose to live really close to the church and hit the neighborhood jackpot. I'm a bookworm and always have 2-3 books going at once. I have learned to love good music by osmosis (my husband has great taste!) (my current favs: Brandi Carlile, Lone Bellow), but I'm pretty happy with silence too, since it's hard to come by with small children. We don't have grandparents or immediate family in town, and I'm insanely jealous of those that do. But luckily our friends here have become like family. Favorite Restaurant: El Mirasol Favorite Landmark: Eisenhower Park Favorite San Antonio Tradition: 4th of July neighborhood parade


  1. Thank you for this piece!! We also were gifted an elf last year and both of my kids were so creeped out, I donated it. Now one of our teachers have the elf family children talk about where their elf’s are almost every morning. So of course I hear how much we need one daily. I also believe we have other more meaningful, magical traditions and my kids enjoy hiding our stuffed Santa outside together some days to sort of make up for the missing elf! When mine complain about what others have my stock answer is, “we just don’t do that in our family.” Our kids exhibit good behavior bc they are good people who do good based on our values, not an external source. And I agree we will also not be getting cell phones when “everyone else” does! But hopefully the lack of cell phones is a movement that more and more parents will adopt as we learn the negative effects. I know this sounds “judgy” and it’s not meant that way, solely a way of explaining! (Though with all the division lately over following medical advice to help our country, maybe some judgement is necessary for all to be held accountable in some instances, but that’s a whole other article?)

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ve been blown away by how much good feedback I’ve gotten from the concept of our kids getting used to being “the only ones who…” I take that as a very positive sign. If that resonates so much with our parenting peers, then it gives me great hope!

Comments are closed.