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Elf on the Shelf: Festive fun or a Christmas craze gone too far?

Introduced from the US, the new tradition sees mums and dads tasked at bedtime with dreaming up a new prank for the Elf to delight their children the next morning. Two mums tell Stephanie Bell why they love playing along, while another is having none of it

Oscar and his family having fun looking at their Elf on the Christmas tree
Oscar and his family having fun looking at their Elf on the Christmas tree
Oscar and his family having fun looking at their Elf on the Christmas tree
Alison and Justin Snowdon with their sons Oscar and Lucas
Tom Harland joins Father Christmas and reindeer in a sleigh
Tom and Jill Harland
Emma and Scott Gardiner with their children Olly, Jack and Georgie at home in Lurgan with their elf
Olly and Jack Gardiner with their elf

By Stephanie Bell

A small army of elves has descended on homes all over Northern Ireland this week as the cheeky little chap takes his place at the centre of the Christmas countdown. Elf on the Shelf has taken the world by storm with 11 million families "adopting" an elf from the North Pole during the month of December.

For many families of small children, the elf who arrives on December 1 and stays until Christmas Eve is now nearly as big a part of the festive fun as Santa himself.

The naughty Elf is sent as a "scout" by Santa to check if children are being naughty or nice.

Do you have a mischievous Elf in your home? Send us a picture of your kids with their Elf to

He can't be touched by anyone in the house and - just to add to the fun - gets up to mischief when everyone is asleep at night.

It's been a remarkable and swift trajectory to global domination for the Elf. He began as a character in a children's book in the US in 2005 and moved across to the UK in recent years.

The Elf on the Shelf was written in 2004 by stay at home mum Carol Aebersold and her grown twin daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts.

It was a childhood family tradition for Aebersold growing up in Georgia in the Seventies that the family had an elf called Fisbee who reported to Santa.

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When she was raising her own girls she told them the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn't be touched or it would lose its magic.

When they decided to turn it into a book in 2004 their manuscript was rejected a number of times and they finally self-published it. It went on to win a number of awards and the magic of elf gripped the US and soon moved across the pond to the UK.

Replicas of the original Elf, which comes with the story book, have popped up everywhere from leading department stores to your local corner shop.

And as the idea catches on, savvy retailers are cashing in this year with accessories, including a range of Elf clothing. Indeed, you can even buy a bed for your Elf.

Naturally, many parents see it as a way of introducing some extra magic to the festivities for the little ones, but there are others who view it as simply one more pressure - and an extra cost - during what is already a stressful period.

With 24 nights to host the Elf (who returns to the North Pole on Christmas Eve), the pressure to create new antics for little ones to see each morning can take its toll.

Social media is currently awash with pictures of elves and the mischief they are getting up to in homes across Northern Ireland.

Celebrities, too, are getting in on the craze with David and Victoria Beckham posting pictures of their Elf for six-year-old daughter Harper, and Ayda Field and Robbie Williams - who have a female elf called Dotty for five-year-old Teddy and two-year-old Charlton - sharing the fun on Instagram.

We talked to local parents to see how the Elf is settling in this year - as well as to one mum who has declared her home an Elf-free zone.

‘It’s harmless and brings that bit of extra magic’

Alison and Justin Snowdon with their sons Oscar and Lucas

Alison Snowdon adopted her first Elf last Christmas and says her little ones Oscar (4) and Luke (2) couldn't wait for his arrival again this year. The 28-year-old hairdresser from Magheralin, Co Down, who is married to Justin (28), a civil servant, had hoped the Elf would bring a bit of extra magic into December for her elder son.

She says: "Everyone was putting up pictures every day of their elves and what they had been up to and I just thought it would be a bit of fun for Oscar.

"Also, he was only three last year and still not really sure about Santa and Christmas so it brought it more alive for him and got him talking about Christmas more.

"Our Elf arrived on December 1 and rang the doorbell and when we answered he was sitting on the step with a selection box for Oscar. We did tell him that he had to be good for Santa and that the wee Elf would be watching him.

"Oscar looked forward to coming down every morning to see what the Elf had got up to. Thankfully, there is a girl who comes into our salon who has really good ideas and I kept an eye on her Facebook posts to give me ideas of what to do with him."

Consequently, the Elf got up to numerous pranks during the night - Oscar woke to find him making snow angels with talcum powder, zip lining down the living room curtains on a candy cane and squirting toothpaste over the sink.

Alison confesses: "You start on a roll with lots of ideas but it does get a wee bit hard towards the end of the month.

Oscar and his family having fun looking at their Elf on the Christmas tree

"It definitely does create a wee bit of excitement in the mornings when Oscar wakens and can't wait to get down and see what the Elf has gotten up to.

"For us it did bring that little bit of extra magic and it made Christmas feel a bit more real to Oscar.

"It is a bit of harmless fun for the kids.

"At the end of the day the magic lasts for such a short time and if we can make it more special then why not?"

‘It makes the kids happy which is what it is all about’

Emma and Scott Gardiner with their children Olly, Jack and Georgie at home in Lurgan with their elf

Emma Gardiner (34), a hairdresser from Lurgan, is married to Scott (31), a classroom assistant, and has three children, Olly (7), Jack (5) and Georgie (1).

She introduced the Elf to her family last year after her boys asked why they didn't have one. Because of their popularity she struggled to get an Elf in time for December 1 as they were sold out.

"The boys were coming home from school asking why an Elf hadn't come to our house as everyone else in school seemed to have one," she says.

"I had seen them on social media the previous year and wondered how people could be bothered but when the boys mentioned them I thought, why not? It should be a bit of fun.

"We wanted to get the original Elf on the Shelf with the book but they were sold out everywhere. We finally managed to get one a couple of days into December so our Elf arrived late with a letter apologising and explaining that he had got delayed in the North Pole.

"The book explains all about the Elf and that Santa has sent him to see if the children are being naughty or nice.

"Ours was a girl Elf (it says on the box if it is a boy or girl) and we called her Sprinkles.

"I know this is going to make me sound like a terrible mum but I would use it to remind the boys that the Elf was watching when they weren't being well behaved."

For Emma and her husband, the nightly ritual of thinking up the pranks for the Elf did prove a bit of a challenge as the month wore on.

She even admits to "Elf envy" as she found herself checking what other elves were up to on social media. "It does get hard and I can recall one night when it was about midnight and we were in bed and suddenly realised we had forgot about Elf and had to get up and go downstairs and come up with an idea for a prank.

"Of course, some people go all out and would put you to shame. I remember one had stuck the Elf to the wall with duct tape and then a load of other toys around it as if they were holding the Elf hostage.

"There was a bit of Elf envy when you see things like that but for us it was mostly things that were easy."

Olly and Jack Gardiner with their elf

Emma's Elf did get up to its fair share of mischief. Her boys came down the stairs to find the Elf had emptied the laundry basket and thrown the dirty clothes all over the house, with some hanging from the lights and curtains.

They also found the Elf had drawn on family pictures, and one night their festive visitor ate a whole box of Celebrations sweets, putting all the empty wrappers back into the tub.

Emma says: "It makes the kids happy which is what it is all about for us and it definitely adds some extra magic to Christmas. If the kids didn't like it I wouldn't do it.

"It is a harmless piece of fun and it is only for a few years and then the magic is gone so I want to keep it alive for as long as I can for the kids.

"It helps them to really get involved in the countdown to Christmas."

‘I can see the fun side but it could add expense and pressure’

Tom and Jill Harland

Jill Harland (45), from Armagh, is mum to Tom (9), a pupil of The Royal School Armagh Preparatory department.

She says Tom is at an age when he knows that Elf is not real, although he still believes in Father Christmas.

And while there is no Elf in their house this Christmas she says she understands that for others it can bring some extra magic to the season.

"My son still believes in Father Christmas and he's getting very excited about Christmas," she says. "But Tom has seen Elf on the Shelf packs in shops so he knows it's not real.

"I'm not sure that he'd like me to participate in it as he's a little bit sceptical of someone who appears in your house as if by magic. As he gets older I have to come up with more inventive ways of explaining how Father Christmas gets into the house.

"In fact, I know quite a few children who don't really like the concept of Father Christmas as they find it a little bit intimidating and it's quite a strange concept to comprehend that someone sneaks into your house with you not being aware of it!"

Happily Jill says Tom has never asked for an elf so she has no qualms about letting this relatively new tradition pass them by.

Tom Harland joins Father Christmas and reindeer in a sleigh

But she adds: "I can see the point of it being exciting and magical although I do think that parents in general are finding Christmas more stressful and time-pressured so coming up with special activities for the Elf on the Shelf could possibly add extra pressure and expense.

"And there does seem to be quite a lot of competition going on between people trying to have the very best Elf on the Shelf ideas. While I can see the magical and fun side of this, I'm slightly concerned about any extra pressure."

What Elf costs

  • The original Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition with book, elf and keepsake box, £16.99
  • Elf Behaving Badly, two-pack available, from £6.99 on Amazon
  • Elf on the Shelf sleeping bag, £2.50,
  • Knitted Elf Sweater, £1.50,
  • Elf dressing gown, £2.50,
  • Elf on the Shelf Princess outfit, £8.99, Amazon

Some simple elf pranks

  • Put elf inside a toilet roll and let him roll down the stairs so the kids get up to find him at the bottom.
  • Put some empty wrappers from a box of chocolates around elf and smear some chocolate on his face and it'll seem like your naughty elf has eaten the forbidden Christmas sweets.
  • Fold some tissues to create a small pillow and pop the elf inside the tissue box with his head resting on the pillow and it'll seem like he's created his own little bed.
  • Pop elf in a large bowl and fill with marshmallows and allow the kids to find him enjoying a marshmallow bath!
  • Let elf encourage your little ones to brush their teeth by putting the toothpaste tube in elf's arms after writing the children's names with the toothpaste.

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