Move over, Elf on the Shelf and Mensch on a Bench: there's a new elf in town. This winter, as the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve coincide for the first time since 1978, Bloomsbury Children's Books is introducing Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf in an attempt to straddle the divide between the two holidays for Jewish children living in a world dominated by the culture of all things Santa.
Shmelf's creator and author, Greg Wolfe, told TODAY Parents that the idea for Shmelf came from his own son, Connor, now 7, asking, "Does Santa even know who I am?"
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Though Wolfe and his wife, Julie, who live in Valencia, California, "are probably the most Christmasy Jewish family you've ever met — we put up lights, hang stockings, have cookies and milk waiting for Santa," they do not put up a Christmas tree and are "still very Jewish," Wolfe said, "so Hanukkah is our holiday."
But as their son grew older and more aware of the differences in the holidays, Wolfe said, "I realized something very important about children and Santa: it doesn't matter whether or not you celebrate Christmas; when you're a kid, especially in America, Santa Claus EXISTS. He's on TV, he's at the mall — he's even at Disneyland!"
Wolfe, who is a high school history teacher at a school for at-risk youth, said his own child's questions about Santa showed him "there are a lot of Jewish kids in this world who don't get visited by Santa every year like their Christian friends do," and that they likely also wonder why, just as his son did.
Enter the story of Shmelf, a North Pole elf who takes an interest in the Jewish children of the world and visits a Jewish home to learn all about Hanukkah. When he tells Santa what he learned, Santa tells Shmelf, "'Hanukkah is a time for family and song,/For joy and tradition — it's where you belong!/I've decided: at Hanukkah you'll travel the world/Bringing magic and joy to each boy and each girl." He gifts Shmelf with a special blue and white elf outfit, his own sleigh, and "a Jewish reindeer by the name of Asher," and Shmelf becomes a possible bridge to the ubiquitous Santa myth for Jewish families who welcome him into their homes.
Wolfe said he wanted to create a character, "Santa's special ambassador to Jewish children," who could understand and love Hanukkah while also serve as a link to the bigger "World of Christmas" happening around them every year. "He is an elf who makes Jewish kids realize they can still have the idea of Santa Claus while still loving and appreciating their own culture and traditions," said Wolfe.
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Wolfe said it is important to him that Shmelf might become part of a holiday tradition for parents and their children that he loved growing up: "the winter nights when our family would come together and light the candles, smelling the latkes cooking in the kitchen while we were playing with our dreidels and gobbling down chocolate gelt, and who can forget about the presents?"
Unlike other holiday mascots like the famous Elf and the Mensch, Shmelf's story, illustrated by Howard McWilliam, incorporates elements of both Christian and Jewish cultural traditions. But the biggest difference is that Shmelf is not there to regulate kids' behavior. Since Santa isn't the one bringing presents to the Jewish children, there's no "spymaster" to report back to, Wolfe explained, making Shmelf more of a "free-agent spirit of happiness" and less of a spy.
"Jewish kids know that it's their parents giving them the gifts, so the idea is that once you tell Shmelf what you'd like as a special gift, he might be able to 'magically' influence Mom and Dad by 'whispering' into their ears — which leaves it up to the parents whether Junior's getting underpants or a 300-piece Lego Star Destroyer," Wolfe said.
"Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf" is available for purchase now.
This article was originally published on Sep. 12, 2016 on TODAY.com.