Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A post-secular theological inquiry into the phenomenon known as "elf on the shelf"

Perhaps Elf on the Shelf has been around for a while, but I only noticed it this year because parents started posting their Elf on the Shelf (hereafter EotS) experiences on Facebook, often with photos of signed certificates attached. I was at that time intrigued by the procedural rhetoric at play in the formative practices of the genre.

Today I had my first close encounter with the story, in the form of a picture book recited at a preschool Christmas party. In a brief survey of the class, approximately 3/4ths of the students now have EotS in their homes.

It's a cute story, and inasmuch as it expands the toddler imaginative horizon to develop and deepen the Santa Claus mythos, I'm in favor of it.

Anyone adopting the practice should be aware, however, that you are, in a very direct sense, being "sold." It's a marketing strategy that is also an invitation into a distinct narrative. Like so much of our culture, marketing and story-telling go hand in hand. This should come as no surprise, but is worth remembering.

In our house, we still do the traditional (though apparently waning) Advent calendar gig. We also have been sold a product to walk us through this journey. We love our LEGO Advent calendars. I recommend them. There is joy in the daily opening of mini-gifts, marking the days of the Advent season. It's a counting game, and a waiting game, and frankly, we're getting mini-figures each day that our children will throw into the Lego mix for years to come.

However, what I want to analyze briefly here is the extent to which the EotS phenomenon is a post-secular Advent practice. Clearly, there are no elves in the bible (well, maybe in the Apocrypha, but I haven't read that for a while, so I don't remember for sure). But the elf in EotS is a waiting and watching elf. In fact, this elf is a cute, but nevertheless Orwellian, Big Brother. The EotS sits on the shelf and watches children during the holiday season to ascertain whether they are naughty or nice. Santa makes decisions on gift-giving based on the behavioral performance of said children.

So, EotS evokes the themes of Advent (waiting, watching, anticipation of a coming one--Santa), but does so in completely secular terms. It is just Santa's elf, after all. But then the moral tenor of the elf's presence takes on a cast, but not the constituent theological elements, of the actual practices of Advent.

In fact, EotS precisely inverts the eschatological dimensions of the pre-secularized Advent tradition. Advent is waiting for the righteous one who imputes righteousness to us as a gift rather than overseeing our righteousness and then gifting us based on merits. These are very different soteriologies. No Hegelian synthesis is on offer. These are, instead, social imaginaries that lack a Horizontverschmelzung.

Which is not to say that they cannot co-exist in the same house. It is only that if they do, they will need to do so knowingly under the form of the Mievillean motif exemplified in his bicameral post-novel, The City and the City.

Merry Christmas. You are being watched.

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