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The true story behind the Elf on the Shelf tradition

Brush up on the history and rules before Scout Elf's arrival this holiday season.

Santa Claus might know if you’ve been bad or good, but there’s a special elf— notably one who likes to hang out on the shelf — that’s really the one to impress during the holiday season.

Whether you’ve already hosted this special visitor from the North Pole during the holidays or you see friends and family share their various elfcapades on social media, one thing for sure: The Elf on the Shelf has become a cherished holiday tradition.

In fact, Santa’s "nice list" wouldn’t be possible without the help of all of his red-suited Scout Elves, who have been adopted and named by families all around the world. These Scout Elves arrive in homes in late November or early December and fly back nightly to the North Pole report back to Santa. That means children of all ages who would like to receive presents under the tree on Christmas Day must be on their best behavior. The next day, the Scout Elves magically reappear elsewhere in the home to the delight of all.

Children may talk to their cheery visitors, though Scout Elves can only listen and never speak to humans. Only parents are allowed to touch them or else they’ll lose their magic — and who would want such a thing?

The story behind Elf on the Shelf

Before there were Scout Elves, there was Fisbee, a pixie elf that Carol Aebersold received when she was a child. In 1974, Aebersold told her three children that the elf was there to keep an eye on them in the days leading up to Christmas and would report back nightly to Santa about their behavior.

Decades later, Carol and Chanda turned this charming family tradition into the book “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," which was illustrated by Coë Steinwart. With the support of their family — in particular Christa and her marketing expertise — the book and accompanying Scout Elf figure debuted at a book signing in Marietta, Georgia, in 2005. 

elf on shelf with dog
The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®

Elf on the Shelf today

In what is likely one of the most successful self-publishing stories of all time, more than 17.5 million Scout Elves have been adopted around the world since their debut. 

The Elf on The Shelf is the heart of The Lumistella Company, with Carol’s daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts at the helm as co-founders and co-CEOs. Beyond the book and Scout Elf figure, the tradition has blossomed into an enterprise, including everything from elf accessories to a stage musical to a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

“We created The Elf on the Shelf tradition to help families have fun during the holidays by sparking moments of joy,” Bell said in a statement shared with TODAY. 

Of course, one of the biggest joys of the Elf on the Shelf tradition is finding where the Scout Elf has landed after a trip back from the North Pole. Some Scout Elves might simply return to different spots on the same shelf, while others are found in some truly creative or comical scenes that the adults in the household simply can’t help but share on social media. "It seems Scout Elves have grown to be quite silly over the years. Yet, they always manage to match the personality of their family," Bell added. 

While Bell says that "no Scout Elf 'idea' is too big or small," The Lumistella Company has created many resources to help busy families “inspire” their elves for a fun and happy season, everything from the Claus Couture Collection of elf apparel to the Scout Elf Ideas app.

The Elf on the Shelf rules

Sure, it may be all fun and games, but there are still some official rules that everyone should follow, including:

  • Children shouldn’t touch the Scout Elves or they'll lose their Christmas magic.
  • Scout Elves listen well, but they never speak to humans. 
  • Scout Elves are always nice, often clever and humorous, but never cruel or naughty.
  • After reporting back to Santa at the North Pole each night, Scout Elves are found the next morning in a new spot in the home.
  • Scout Elves are adopted, not bought.

elves on shelf
The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®

What families love about Elf on the Shelf

Rebecca Rouse is a wife, mom of two and the home stylist/DIYer behind Rouse in the House.

“Obsessed would be an understatement,” she says of her household in December, when Ken their “main” Elf is visiting. That’s right, Ken doesn't fly solo — he’s married with two adorable baby elves. “The wife and children only come on special occasions,” Rouse told TODAY. “My kids are always so ecstatic when they do.” Ken also writes personalized notes to the kids, which are a big hit.

Chantelle Hartman Malarkey, an interior designer, home chef and lifestyle expert, also eagerly awaits the opportunity to welcome her family’s Scout Elf each Christmas season.

“All of us have enjoyed [The Elf on the Shelf] tradition, no matter how old or young we are,” Malarkey told TODAY. “When my kids wake up, I cannot wait to show them my elf masterpieces and all the creative trouble that will ensue.”

Kids of all ages enjoy the spirit of Christmas that the Scout Elf brings. Stew and Regina Huminski from Aberdeen, Maryland, pair their Scout Elf, Claude, with a stuffed Stitch from the Disney movie “Lilo & Stitch” and, as expected, hijinks ensue. 

“There are years where we don’t always feel the holiday spirit so strongly and even a couple years where we didn’t decorate, but Stitch and Claude are always making mischief,” Stew told TODAY.

Jeanna Crawford, the lifestyle influencer behind Jenna Loves Christmas on Instagram, sees the tradition as an opportunity for adults to get in on the holiday fun. “The magic of Elf on the Shelf reaches beyond the children the dolls are intended for and gives parents permission to play, flex their creative muscles and feel confident that they’re actively participating in the memory making during an otherwise busy holiday season," she said.

And with millions of households sharing in that memory making, it seems that indeed The Elf on the Shelf tradition will carry on for many years to come.  

“I am thrilled that our family pastime continues to create merry moments which are being passed from one generation to the next with the earliest adopters of our tradition now sharing it with their own children," Bell said.