Not sure where I’ve been but this is the first I’m hearing of the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, the popular children’s book that takes the “he knows if you’ve been naughty or nice” aspect of Santa Claus to a whole new level. Essentially, parents have begun placing little elf dolls on their mantle pieces to serve as North Pole nanny-cams, an ever-present reminder that Someone is watching, weighing, waiting. Torie Bosch on Slate published a great piece exploring the Big Brother implications and obvious cognitive dissonance that such tactics might produce in otherwise proudly nurturing parents. If the whole thing sounds a tad like hysteria over an innocuous holiday gimmick, watch the video at the bottom on the page (please tell me it’s a spoof!). One could hardly invent a more blatant externalization of “works righteousness” if one tried… So is the Elf on the Shelf more evidence of our hardwiring for Law (Romans 2:15) or just a cute toy that’s not worth a second thought? You be the, um, judge.

I happen to be a Santa proponent – there’s precious little enchantment left in the Internet age, and I’ll take what I can get. And no one like a party-pooper. Chimneys and stockings and cookies and reindeer are all good fun. But Clement Moore is one thing, “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” is another. The only thing worse than its irritating tune is its creepy spirit – even Phil Spector couldn’t fully redeem it (though the drum fills at the end of his version come pretty close). The song inspired one of MJ’s most annoying performances ever, and Springsteen’s bombastic version may be the worst of all, a recording which I personally consider his lowest point. The crimes really do add up. But I digress.

Bosch is not the first to point out that the Santa myth – at least the one articulated in the song – contains more than a few eerie similarities to the judgment that people commonly associate with God (“making a list,” etc). It is precisely the sort of karmic/Pelagian story that, left to our own devices, we would of course come up with. The sad irony here is that many of the religious groups that are most opposed to the secularization of Christmas present a God who has a whole lot more in common with a scorekeeping Santa Claus than a Prince of Peace.

As we all know, any gift premised on deserving is not much of a gift at all, it’s more of a cosmic paycheck. Which is ultimately why keeping “Christ” a part of Christmas has any consequence: not because of some losing culture war concern, but because Jesus represents pure Gift, a genuine respite for an achievement-fixated species. As opposed to more of the same, like Santa. The baby embodies (and reveals) the favor and love of God in all its vulnerability and impossibility, independent of the response it might receive or the behavior it might inspire – no thank you note required! Nothing less than the end of Listmaking and beginning of Assurance, the sort of thing inveterate elves on shelves would have never come up with. You might even call it a miracle, ht JD:

There is clearly a market for supplementing Santa’s surveillance. Hence the explosive popularity of The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.

The Elf on the Shelf comes with a short picture book and a small, stiff doll. Parents read to their young kids the book, which tells the story of an elf who keeps an eye on a family during the day, then flies back to the North Pole at night to give Santa a sitrep. The tale helps build the holiday frenzy (and excitement for presents). Then, the parents put the elf somewhere in the house to watch over the children, their good deeds and bad. After the kids go to bed, when the elf is supposedly making its long commute back to the North Pole, the parents must move the doll to a new spot—a bookcase, the mantel, or some other cozy nook. Come morning, the kids try to find where the elf has situated itself for the new day. During sibling fights, moments of petulance, and other interludes of misbehavior, parents can point to the elf—whom the children have named—and say, “Do you want Santa to hear about this?” The elf-as-Big Brother effect, I hear, is a bit of Christmas magic for stressed-out moms and dads.

That magic has translated into big-time sales. Since it was first self-published in 2005 by the mother-and-daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, the book has sold more than 2 million copies.

I have to imagine that many of the millions who have purchased the book belong to or at least sympathize with the ACLU, support the protesters battling the authoritarian Syrian regime, and bristle about Facebook privacy. So where does this cognitive dissonance leave us? Is it shortsighted to encourage children to behave as if they are constantly watched? Perhaps the briefness of the elf’s presence—most parents bring it out sometime after Thanksgiving—keeps it from conditioning children to tolerate, even expect, constant surveillance. But I’ve also heard parents say wistfully that they would like to have an elf as backup year-round.

If I had children, I’m sure I would appreciate having the support of a magical creature who could dole out rewards. (Didn’t we used to call that “God”?)… Perhaps the real pitfall of the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is that parents can’t rely on it to keep order for very long.