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What is Elf on the Shelf? A secret history of Santa's scout

Love or hate him, the Elf on the Shelf has changed the Christmas season.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor
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Happy birthday, Elf on the Shelf! Since 2005, the modern incarnation of Santa’s lovable little scout has enchanted a generation of children, spawned a multimedia phenomenon, sparked an academic backlash and changed the Christmas landscape for millions of parents.

It almost never happened.

When Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, first tried to sell "The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," every single editor and publisher turned them down.

“They just did not know what to do with it. Nobody had done anything like this before,” says Bell.

Their inspiration was their family’s personal tradition, passed down from Carol’s childhood along with a ‘50s-era vintage elf named Fisbee.

“I was a new mom myself, and I was like, ‘Hey, Mom, I need an elf that talks to Santa too! There was nothing like that available,” says Bell. “My mom was able to write from her point of view and I was able to write from a child’s point of view.”

Aebersold, Bell, and Aebersold’s other daughter, Christa Pitts, self-published the book and sold it by personally explaining the tradition to buyers and families, one by one. “It was a bit of guerrilla marketing at first,” laughs Bell.

The elf on the shelf sees all
“Each night while you’re sleeping/to Santa I’ll fly,” the "Elf on the Shelf" book says. “I’ll tell him if you have been good or bad. The news of the day makes him happy or sad… I’ll be back at your home before you awake, and then you must find the new spot I will take.”AP

In retrospect, the personal touch might have been what turned their quirky family tradition into an American cultural phenomenon, Bell said. “I feel very confident that the book and the elf would not be what it is today and as successful as it is if it had started in the traditional publishing world. We were very fortunate to have something to share with the world, and I feel that if we had not had that chance to go door to door and explain it to people, the specialness of the tradition would have been lost.”

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The story itself, she notes, is very simple: “Each night while you’re sleeping/to Santa I’ll fly,” the book says. “I’ll tell him if you have been good or bad. The news of the day makes him happy or sad… I’ll be back at your home before you awake, and then you must find the new spot I will take.”

Quietly, the book and the scout elf gained a following in American households. Then, after Jennifer Garner was seen holding the book in paparazzi photos in 2007, the Elf on the Shelf took flight.

"The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition" has sold over 11 million copies. The elf debuted his own half-hour animated special, "An Elf’s Story," in 2011, joined the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012, and now has an extensive elf wardrobe, a female counterpart, a pet reindeer and a Netflix deal. The elf has a birthday edition and a new book also written by Bell: "Elf Pets: A Reindeer Tradition." The Elf on the Shelf has 1.3M+ fans on Facebook, 760K+ Twitter followers, 250K Instagram followers, and yes — there is an app for that elf as well.

While the elf gained fans, he also made some enemies. For every parent who delights in creating fun elf scenarios to delight their children (and, perhaps, their followers on social media), there’s another parent who curses the workload of moving that $@*&! elf every night. Some refuse to play along.

The Elf gets an eye exam...from Barbie!
The Elf gets an eye exam...from Barbie!Christie Pham

“I have not bought into the Elf on the Shelf. As much as I have seen the ‘fun’ with the elf, I've seen an equal number of complaints. Why, as mothers, do we go out of our way to do more in our daily lives? The elf is a self-imposed daily task, in which many moms are already stretched thin,” says mother April N. Grant.

Says parenting blogger Tara Wood, “My husband and I have had actual, for real arguments about who is on elf duty that night and who has shouldered most of the burden during the dreaded elf season. I have cursed the elf's name (Thomas Henry) and rolled out of my warm bed at 3 a.m. to find a new spot for him because I can't bear to see the disappointment on our kid's faces when he's still sitting in the same spot as yesterday.”

Other parents feel the love. “I used to be a hard-core elf-hater until one night right before Christmas when I overheard my son's lengthy conversation, more a monologue you could say, with our Elf on the Shelf. It was so sweet and earnest it melted my cold, elf-hating heart. He spoke for about 20 minutes to our elf, and in all that time all he asked for was one present. After that I could do nothing but love that little guy. Well both of them, actually,” says Stacey Gill.

“My most favorite elf adventures are the ones that I come up with 100 percent on my own. Pinterest has millions of ideas to duplicate but what is the fun in that? Each night's adventure should reflect your child's current likes, reflect the activities you did that day, or somehow relate to your kid,” says mother of two Christie Pham.

The Elf changes baby doll diapers!
The Elf changes baby doll diapers! Lexie Van Winkle

Bell, who is now co-CEO of the elf’s parent company, Creatively Classic Activities and Books, with her sister, says that the actual concept is simple, and the pressure to make elaborate displays is self-imposed. Bell has a 17-year-old son and a 12-year old daughter. “Our own elf just flies back and forth to the North Pole and hides in different spots,” she says. “Every once in a while, he might answer a letter my children write him or spell out ‘HELLO’ in M&Ms… People forget that the pressure they put on themselves is self-induced.”

Author and blogger Jen Mann of People I Want To Punch In The Throat is now infamous for urging parents to take it down a notch. Her post, “Overachieving Elf on the Shelf Mommies” went viral in 2011. Wrote Mann: ”He's called The Elf on the Shelf, not the Elf who Skydives, Takes Bubble Baths and Shaves the Dog! Leave him on the shelf so the rest of us slackers don't look so bad. I think I'm just going to lay my Elf on his shelf, tape wires and hoses to him and tell my kids he's in a coma and hopefully he'll recover before Christmas.That should give me some flexibility."

Indeed, some moms and dads have gotten creative when figuring out a way to lessen the work of elf duties this year. Elves on Facebook are showing up with broken legs and stomach flus, unable to move until they “get better.”

RELATED: Parenting win: Why this mom broke her Elf on the Shelf's leg

Some critics see a deeper meaning behind the Elf’s eyes. A 2014 paper published by two Canadian academics argued that the Elf conditions children to accept a police surveillance state. (Santa’s little snitch!)

Dr. Laura Pinto of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Selena Nemorin of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives proposed that by telling children that their behavior is being monitored and reported to Santa by a third party, parents could be normalizing the idea of surveillance to their children.

Pinto, who has an elf named Jeremy Bentham, also questions the idea of using the elf to motivate children to behave. “I am a life-long educator,” Pinto says. “The most compelling body of evidence is that to get kids to be intrinsically motivated to be well behaved, you have to build relationships and routines, instill values, and allow children to see how their behavior affects others. It’s not an overnight thing.”

Dr. Pinto concedes that the elf can be a great thing for families with some tweaks to the story. “The fact is, I think the elf is super cute and very interesting as a retro aesthetic,” she says. “My criticism is about the official rules of the toy. Parents need to be able to do what they need to do, and I don’t want to criticize that. My work is to get people to think about what they’re doing and make an informed decision,” she says. “Parents are creative, so instead of the elf just being up to silly hijinks, they could let the elf be an entree to any conversation they want their children to be talking and thinking about.”

Christie Pham used this tactic with her then-4-year-old daughter. “Our elf Sprinkle is getting his eyes examined. Our daughter has been wearing glasses since 6 months of age and she flipped out when she saw Sprinkle trying on his glasses. This morning the elf left the eye doctor Barbies for her to play with, and she has been trying on glasses and patching the little Barbie's eyes all day long!”

Lexie Van Winkle’s young daughters have a new baby brother in the house, so their elf demonstrates ways to help with the baby.

Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family doctor and mother of four, agrees. “It is absolutely possible to enrich your family’s traditions and experience and fun using the Elf on the Shelf without treating the story as a bible,” she says. “It is entirely up to the philosophy of each family how much they want to use this as more of an ethical guardian. It can be done in fun, or it can be taken far enough that it will take the joy out of the Elf on the Shelf for kids or scare them.

“But parents are experts on their own kids,” Dr. Gilboa notes, “and they’ll know how to use this to add joy instead of take it away.”

This article was originally published on Dec. 18, 2015 and has been updated.