Why is it that kids are often on their worst behavior ahead of Christmas? Is it the excitement about the holidays? Are they affected by the shorter hours of daylight? Do they pick up on the stress of the adults in their lives who are busily trying to check off all the items on their too long to-do lists? Whatever the reason or reasons, I muster all the patience I have to deal with the changes I see every December in Alex and my seventh grade students. Children who have spent the entire year on Santa’s “Nice” list suddenly start acting like those on the “Naughty” list instead. For Alex, the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Christmas are intensified by the anticipation of his birthday that falls nine days before the day we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Knowing this, I always brace myself for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, waiting for Alex to misbehave.
When I was little, my mom used to threaten my siblings and me with elf warnings to make us behave ahead of Christmas. If we were acting up—usually bickering amongst ourselves—she would look toward a window and say, “I hope Santa’s elves weren’t looking in the window just now.” The concern that Santa might not leave us any presents was usually enough to make us straighten up right away—at least until we temporarily forgot about those nosy elves. Apparently this is an old mother’s tale because I know other kids who grew up like me, believing that Santa’s elves were Peeping Toms in December. Someone very enterprising has made an entire industry on this concept, selling an elf doll and an accompanying book, The Elf on the Shelf for thirty bucks. Instead of looking in the windows, this elf sits on a shelf (hence, the name of the book) in the family home, watching the children’s behavior and reporting back to Santa every night. I would think that kids with some cleverness and gumption would take that elf doll and hide it in a closet or toy box so that he couldn’t tattle on them and risk ruining their Christmas morning. Of course, if kids buy into the words of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” they have to worry about the big man himself who “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake.” Moreover, “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Aside from the creepiness of making Santa sound like a stalker, these lyrics, like the elf warnings, remind children that they need to behave, lest risking Santa’s wrath.
When Alex was younger and believed in Santa Claus, I followed my mom’s example and reminded him of elves looking in windows any time he misbehaved in December. Since Alex loved the idea of Santa, we allowed him to believe in him much longer than most children do. The added bonus to his buying into this kindly fictitious character was that he believed that the elves were keeping an eye on him, and I took full advantage of his naiveté. Not surprisingly, Alex developed a dislike for all elves, not just Santa’s. He didn’t like the Keebler cookie elves, hiding a metal container we had with their picture on it under our couch. In addition, the Rice Krispies cereal elves, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, each earned persona non grata status in our house. Alex especially disliked a bowl that had these three elves depicted in it, and he would turn it over to hide their faces, saying, “DON’T LIKE ELVES!” I guess he saw them as intruders in our home, traitors who would tell Santa of any of his misdeeds. I’d hate to think what he might have done to the elf doll and book, had we owned The Elf on the Shelf; I bet they would have wound up hidden under the couch, hanging out with the Keebler elves. Even though Alex developed an aversion to elves, I miss those younger days when he believed in magical characters and wanted to be on Santa’s good side. We still have that bowl with the Rice Krispies elves; I wonder if it still might have some of that magic left in it yet…
“Be careful to obey all my commands, so that all will go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and pleasing to the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 12:28