complex simplicityHe sees you when you’re sleeping.

He knows when you’re awake.

No, he’s not Santa. He’s a member of a covert, international team of spies dedicated to exposing bad behavior—all too often, its own.

What began as a simple mandate to observe, from a vantage point specified as “on the shelf”, has expanded to include virtually every room in a house, with no due process of law, and few restrictions. In an era of increased concerns over privacy, we, the people, have invited these foreign spies into our homes, and plied them with candy, cookies and milk.

The Elf on the Shelf project was launched in 2005, and like selfies, food trucks, and skinny jeans, it’s doubtful that anyone anticipated how widespread it would one day become. More than 10 million “scout elves” are currently on assignment around the world. Some families say the elves enhance the process of waiting for Christmas; others disagree vehemently, but concede that if you find the presence of pint-sized people eavesdropping and performing mischief amusing, you should feel confident you were meant to be a parent.

The Elf on the Shelf agency, which answers to the North Pole, has countered criticism in recent years by embracing diversity. Christopher Cringle, spokesman for North Pole Enterprises, pointed to successful efforts to expand the roster of elves to include not just cute, blue-eyed, fair-skinned little people, but adorable brown-eyed elves as well.

If shadow companies and a late, but concerted effort to better reflect the population at large sound a lot like the U.S. government, even more striking are reports (and photographs) of wild behavior, reminiscent of the notorious bacchanals attended by members of the U.S. Secret Service. When asked about these similarities, Cringle commented only that, “There is a strict rule prohibiting human-elf contact.” Provocative pictures, readily available on the internet, indicate that there are no such rules regarding contact with Barbie or alcohol.
Despite Cringle’s claim of strictness, elves who have violated the taboo against human contact are not “put on the shelf,” i.e., retired from service. Rather, these elves, known by code names such as “Winky,” “Jingles,” and “Snowflake,” are often soon restored to their previous station—put back on the shelf to watch silently once more.

Immobilized upon contact with human skin, the elves can be resuscitated through a bizarre ritual—cinnamon, as well as red and green glitter, has been claimed to successfully restore their ability to move and hide. But other fallen elves in search of “magic” have been sighted, sprawled unconscious and surrounded by white powder (later claimed to be sugar) or a mysterious “magic dust”—two scenarios that vividly recall the late 1980s drug scene.

Once upon a time, the only ones spying for Santa in a household were a child’s parents, and the mere threat of a phone call to the big man was usually enough to discourage bad behavior. It’s not known whether Santa was dissatisfied with the thoroughness of the reports that resulted from this arrangement—no parents have admitted to a sub-par year of presents, which might have indicated a problem—but somewhere along the line, elves became the de facto holiday authority figures in the home.

The questions swirl around The Elf on the Shelf like snowflakes in a blizzard: is Santa Claus guilty of outsourcing his duties as a child watchdog? Or worse, has he completely shirked his responsibility as adjudicator of good and bad behavior by depending on unreliable informants? Are accusations of voyeurism unfounded?

This reporter’s advice is to exercise caution this holiday season. If you should find yourself in a toy store, encouraged by an unwitting child to adopt a scout elf into your home, simply place the elf back on the shelf and slowly step away. Or, if you must have an Elf on your Shelf, be sure to blindfold it.

Peter Dabbene’s home is currently occupied by two Elves on Shelves. His website is His story “Relativity” can be read online and his latest book, The End of Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) is available on Amazon.