Sure, it’s a time for family togetherness, but the festive period is enough to give even the most patient of parents a headache. Over-excitement about the prospect of a new Furby married with an excess of advent-calendar chocolate can lead to some perilously unruly children.
All of which helps explain the popularity of Elf on the Shelf. Since 2005, American households have used the book and toy, created by Carol V. Aebersold and her daughter Chanda A. Bell, to ensure children are on their best behaviour in the lead up to Christmas.
The 21cm-tall elf, which can be purchased with either light or dark skin, is placed somewhere in the house, and children are told it watches over them all day before returning to the North Pole at night to report back to Santa on whether they’ve been naughty or nice. After the kids have gone to bed, parents move the elf to a new hiding spot that the youngsters then search for in the morning. To prevent children interfering, the accompanying book tells them that touching the elf will result in it losing all its Christmas magic.
In the US, the concept has, ahem, flown off the shelf. Having originally self-published 5,000 sets, Aebersold and Bell have now sold more than six million copies. The company also now rolls out everything from branded apron sets to colouring books.
And it’s quickly been embraced by pop culture: Elf on the Shelf had a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, NBC’s Today show invites viewers to spot the elf in their studio, and it’s had its own television special on CBS, The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story.
And now it’s taking off over here. British online retailer Prezzybox has been selling the elves since 2009, but this year has seen a 900 per cent increase on last year’s sales. How does it explain the sudden interest?
“A lot of it has to do with the internet. There’s a lot of viral marketing around the product. For example, the Twitter hashtag #elfontheshelf is used 300 times an hour in December,” says Zak Edwards, founder of Prezzybox.
“But generally we tend to notice that products have a life cycle. Especially things that come from the States. There are early adopters before something gains mass appeal. Right now we’re on the upward curve.”
Elf on the Shelf is certainly a winner for both parents and children. While young ones love the hide-and-seek element to it, parents can enjoy a few weeks of obedient charges.
Nick Dettmar, a father of three from Birmingham, is using the elves for the first time this year after hearing about them from a friend.
“One of my sons always wakes up so early, so we leave the elf pointing at 6am on the clock so he knows he’s not allowed to get out of bed before then,” he laughs. “The kids love it though. It will definitely become a family tradition.”
The only complaint from parents seems to be the nightly move, mainly because many forget until after they’ve already turned in. “Oh god, that happens all the time, it’s a nuisance,” says Dettmar. “And you have to keep thinking of new hiding places.”
So what kind of shelf life (sorry) can such a product expect? “This will go for at least another couple of years in its current guise,” predicts Edwards. “If I were the manufacturer I’d come up with alternative angles. Then the world’s their oyster.”
In fact, we’re already seeing some variations on the original. Earlier this year Jewish father Neal Hoffman launched “Mensch on the Bench” (tagline: “Add more Funukkah to your Hanukkah”) so his son could join in the fun.
Perhaps therein lies its success. Because whatever your faith or beliefs, sometimes you just need a helping hand to keep the kids in check.