Solving the Antinomian Santa (Why there is an Elf on the Shelf)

By Paul Koch

Last Friday evening, my wife and I hosted our annual Christmas cocktail party. My home was alive with friends, family, church members, and loved ones. There was live music, a mountain of appetizers, and a steady flow of spirit-lifting cocktails, of course. People danced, talked, drank, and laughed late into the evening. At one point, I found myself in the kitchen area (my wife hates it when we congregate there) having a conversation with a few friends about their Christmas traditions. It was here that I learned about the Elf on the Shelf for the first time.

Now look, I have never been one to be up to date on the latest trends, and I now know that this particular one, Elf on the Shelf, has been around for over a decade. I had heard about it, but I never really knew what it was all about. It wasn’t until Friday evening that I asked. I now know (thanks to Wikipedia) that it began as a book by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, but I want to tell you how it was presented to me by the young parents that use the Elf on the Shelf in their homes.

Apparently, you buy this little elf figure that, as you might have guessed, sits on a shelf in your home. The elf is given a name by your children, and it functions as a sort of spy for Santa Clause. Beginning after Thanksgiving, it remains in one location during the day, and every night it moves to a new location so that the children believe that it is actually going off to rat them to good old St. Nick about their behavior. This has apparently evolved to the elf getting into mischief during the night and other things that make it exciting and magical for the children. The elf then becomes a focal point in the home for when children misbehave. “You better get your room clean or else the elf will tell Santa you’ve been naughty.” “You don’t want the elf to think you aren’t listening, do you? What do you think Santa will think?” And so on.

The elf becomes the personification of a watchful and judging accuser to ensure the kids, strung out on too many Christmas cookies, stay in line.

Now, I’m not going to lie. I was more than a bit horrified by this whole thing. And I immediately began to wonder why anyone would feel the need to participate in the great Elf on the Shelf hoax. Aside from the peer pressure that parents feel to do what everyone else is doing, why would anyone want to perpetuate the fear of the law (the watching eyes of the elf) in their homes?

And then the answer hit me clear as day. They simply don’t trust Santa to produce the right form of behavior we expect from those who are about to get gifts. If gifts are to be given, there must be some measurable means to show worthiness, or at least a change of attitude. We already know that Santa knows when we’ve been bad or good (so be good for goodness sake), but that jolly fat man has a habit of giving his gifts anyway, even to those who really belong on the naughty list. The promise of the Elf on the Shelf is the hope of a real, practical discipline that comes from those who are given such blessings on Christmas morning.


In fact, the more that I thought about the Elf on the Shelf, the more I realized that this was nothing new. Think of the old tradition of Krampus, the half goat, half demon that would terrorize children during Christmas time in Austria and Bavaria. In the 17th century, Krampus would appear beside St. Nicholas and would be the one that dealt with the bad children. If you were good, you received the blessing of Santa Clause; if you were bad, Krampus would search you out! Deep down, people have always feared that Santa wouldn’t be enough, so we find a solution to Santa’s reckless gift giving by either bringing a devil into our homes or the accusing gaze of the elf.

Many years ago in a class on the Lutheran Confessions, Dr. Kolb said to a group of aspiring pastors-to-be that we were to be the hitmen and midwives of God. I’ve always held firm to that description of my vocation. To this day, I still believe that the heart of my task is to do that work. I have been sent by my Lord to kill and bring forth life through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. And it is these two things, the Law and Gospel, that are the organizing functions of my office. While they are categorically different, they are both necessary. But the temptation is always to distrust this work, to say that being a hitman and a midwife is not enough. Perhaps I ought to be the schoolmarm as well, making sure the behavior is consistent with the gifts of salvation.

The temptation is to believe that the threat of the Law will lead to anything but death, that it can produce in a person the desired works that make one worthy of the blessings. Behave before the elf and get your gifts from the big guy. Instead, we are reminded that “Believers, however, do without coercion, with a willing spirit, insofar as they are born anew, what no threat of the law could ever force from them.” (Ep. Formula of Concord, Concerning the Third Use of the Law, 6.)

Sinners don’t need more encouragement; they need to die and be brought to a new life in Christ alone.

Perhaps then you might want to kill the elf that sits on the shelf. When the kids wake up searching for him, you can tell him that you knew how much they misbehaved and that the little rat was going to tell Santa, so you killed him instead. You killed their accuser because you love them and want them to rejoice in the blessings of Christmas morning. Then ask them to pick up their room to help get ready for such certain gifts, and I bet you will find a willing spirit.