My Family’s Elf on the Shelf Reboot: Getting at the Heart of the Season


We’ve all seen the amazing Pinterest ideas about Elf on the Shelf. Writing on the mirror in lipstick, canoodling with Barbie and making mischief in the Christmas tree, he leaves kids in stitches and (oftentimes) parents exhausted. While I adore the magical tradition of the elf moving at night, I don’t feel the same about his mission here in the human world. He’s described by his manufacturers as a “scout that reports back to Santa” and I just can’t deal. A spy in my house reporting on my children? Anyone else find that so creepy and weird? Now, I know what you’re going to say: 

He helps my kids behave during the holidays! 
The threat of reporting back to Santa keeps the peace in our home during the crazy month of December!
Lighten up, it’s fun!
Having him around contributes to the magic of the Christmas season!

While I am all for kids behaving during the holidays, I question the methods of this North Pole Elf.

I wonder if the message our kids are getting is “be nice so that you get toys”. Or perhaps it’s even worse and breeds paranoia that, “Big Brother is watching”. While I may be acting melodramatically — it wouldn’t be the first time and it certainly won’t be the last — I want more for my kids this Christmas than behaving because someone is watching or there is a toy reward. 

I do wonder however, are we missing an opportunity to cultivate something better? Something more magical?

When my parents gave us an Elf on the Shelf a couple of years ago, I thought I wouldn’t use it. Yet when I was unpacking our Advent calendar, I realized I could use our Elf but give her a reboot. Combining her magical powers with the Advent calendar, I created an alternative version of this fun tradition that suits our families values and needs. Rather than arriving as a scout from Santa, our Elf arrives to teach us about the Christmas season. Similar to the intended tradition, she’s always in a fun place every morning but additionally leaves a note in the Advent calendar about the day ahead. She never mentions scouting for the North Pole, being nice over naughty or anything regarding Santa watching. We still have what’s fun and magical about the Elf on the Shelf, only we’ve added a bit of our own Christmas cheer. 

Here’s how we do it:

Step 1: Get an Advent Calendar

No, not the chocolate ones though they are amazing. Please don’t even get me started on the Aldi wine advent calendar that is only available in the U.K. (why God, why?!). Find one with open doors or slats that you can fill with what you want. I purchased ours on sale at Pottery Barn one year but here, here, here and here are a few other amazing options. Whereas I go for store bought, you might make one! 

Elf on the Shelf
Check out this amazing DIY Advent Calendar highlighted on Country Living

Step 2: Get ANY Elf

We decided to use Elf on the Shelf, since we had her already. However, you can get these amazing Kindness Elves (check out the way those work for extra inspiration) or elf figurines are plentiful this time of year. Given that December is an expensive month you do not need to break the bank on this. Peruse your local craft store or even make your own. 

elf on the shelf
Found these on Pinterest– you could even make your own elves that come to visit each year!

Step 3: Decide what you want to emphasize, depending on your faith, values and the age of your children. 

Perhaps each day is a Bible story or prayer, if you’re particularly religious. Maybe everyday is an act of kindness (see the Kindness Elves above) or a craft to give away to loved ones. When my kids grow older, volunteering will be an integral part of the season. Since my kids are ages 3 and 5, I need to mix it up to keep their attention. I’m sharing some ideas below. You’ll see many of them are things we would be doing anyway (decorating the tree, participating in the Christmas pageant at our church) and many are out-of-the-ordinary (writing mail, receiving a new Christmas book). 

Step 4: Make Message Cards for Your Advent Calendar

I picked up some blank cards from the craft store and, each morning, will fill them out with the “assignment” for the day. Here are some of my ideas this year (keep in mind my kids are little):Elf on the Shelf notes for the Advent Calendar

  1. Day 1 – Elf introduces herself and brings matching pajamas. (I have an agenda and it is called the family Christmas photo). 
  2. Build a Gingerbread House (see Trader Joe’s for an inexpensive kit)
  3. Do something nice for your sibling. 
  4. Help mom and dad decorate the house for Christmas!
  5. Decorate your tree.
  6. Make Christmas cookies.
  7. The elf leaves an awesome Christmas book! If you’re looking for a great book that teaches the real message of the season, consider this one or this one for little ones and this one for older ones. 
  8. Write mail to loved ones
  9. Have hot chocolate
  10. Make something for the mail lady to say thanks for delivering all your mail. Or for anyone your child might interact with on a daily basis. The Waste Management workers are celebs in our house!
  11. Make a treat for your neighbors and walk around the neighborhood delivering them.
  12. Watch a Christmas movie! 
  13. Pick one of your toys to give away to a kid who needs it more than you do. Here’s a post with a list of local places to bring items. 
  14. Your Elf did something kind for YOU last night around the house (organized your shoes in the entryway, washed your favorite shirt, etc.). Do a chore around the house. Ask your mom what she needs help with!
  15. Learn a new joke or a Christmas song and send a video of it to people you love!
  16. Collect food for a family that needs it. Go to the store and shop for what the local pantry needs. 
  17. Pick some books of your own to give to a family that needs it or your local library. 
  18. Make a Christmas Card for your teachers or babysitters. 
  19. Your Elf noticed how kind you were yesterday (specific moment) and left you this candy treat! Good job being kind!
  20. Today, go be in your Christmas Pageant!!
  21. Read a story about the true meaning of Christmas today. 
  22. Go see Santa today! Be sure to use your manners and be kind to the other kids there.
  23. Color a Christmas picture and pick someone you love to send it to. 
  24. On Christmas Eve, say goodbye to your Elf and learn instructions for what to leave for Santa and his reindeer! Leave a treat for Santa, carrots for the reindeer and a thank you note!

Step 5: Have Some Fun with Your Elf

We aren’t particularly creative with our Elf on the Shelf but you might be! Keep the magic alive by having your Elf move around. It’s so fun to help the kids find her in the morning. 

In the end, do what works for you. 

The Elf on the Shelf tradition didn’t work for us as it stands so she got a reboot. I want my children to experience generosity but also learn to act generously so the Elf coupled with our Advent calendar is a winning combination for us.. I’m hopeful our North Pole visitor will help with that each year my children believe. After they stop believing, I’m optimistic we can continue our Advent tradition (just sans Elf). 

Merry, Merry Christmas!

Previous articleWhat is SEPAC? 3 Ways SEPACs in Mass Can Help Your Family
Next articleFamily Tradition Magic – Three Steps to Yours
Allison’s mission in life is to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her commitment to see beyond what’s in front of her was fostered by her degree in Philosophy and Theology from Boston College. Allison’s a book nerd and credits her parents and inspiring English teachers for her love of reading and writing. She went on to earn her Master in Pastoral Ministry from Boston College and then taught high school for several years, both in New England and San Francisco. After moving from San Francisco to Boston with her engineer husband, she began teaching yoga and working as a social media marketing consultant. Now a Portsmouth resident, she spends most of her days with her three daughters (she does not have enough arms) and does her best to find the bliss amidst the endless snacking, dance parties and tiaras. With all the beautiful chaos in her life, she’s grateful to have her partner-in-crime (husband Charlie) and fellow movie quote enthusiast alongside her. Her passion for writing first drew her to Seacoast Moms as a contributing writer, and her desire to connect moms of the Seacoast with businesses who serve and interest them led her to become SM’s owner. Being able to write about the ordinary grace present in motherhood, while interacting with incredible Seacoast business owners is a dream come true.