What Is Elf on the Shelf, and How Does It Work?

This little elf is winning over families' hearts across the world. But, you may find yourself asking, how does Elf on the Shelf work?

We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through Facebook and Pinterest and you keep seeing that elf. Yes, the one with the mischievous smile that gets into over-the-top, precarious situations. I know I’ve caught myself wondering, what is the hype with this little elf anyway? Well, after a little digging, I’m ready to dish to you everything you’ve been dying to know about this new Christmas tradition.

What Is Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the Shelf is a Christmas tradition started by Carol Aebersold and her twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts. Each Elf on the Shelf kit consists of the Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition book and a Scout Elf.

The story goes that Santa’s Scout Elves fly to the North Pole each night of December to report to Santa if children have been behaving (or misbehaving). The elves then fly back and hide in a new spot for the children to find him the next morning. Typically, Scout Elves love to hide in sneaky spots around the house and sometimes they like to stir up mischief the night before.

All in all, this quirky tradition is what your family makes of it. Dedicated Elf on the Shelf parents scour Pinterest and follow hashtags like #elfontheshelfideas or #elfontheshelf on Instagram for inspiration for where and how to place their elf each night. Some parents wait all year to bake sweet treats to welcome back Elf on the Shelf while others enjoy the simplicity of reading the book nightly to their children.

Your elf tradition can be as over-the-top or laid back as you’d prefer. No matter which way you take it, all that matters is that you’re starting a Christmas tradition your children will remember for years to come.

When Did Elf on the Shelf Start?

Elf on the Shelf humbly began as one of Carol Aebersold’s childhood traditions with her family’s elf, Fisbee. In 2005, Carol and her two daughters decided to share their childhood traditions with the world. Together, they began a worldwide media sensation when they self-published their book and elf kit, Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.

The magic reallt took hold in 2007 when Jennifer Garner was seen with the Elf on the Shelf book tucked under her arm. Soon after, The Today Show jumped on the story and the rest is history.

Since then, the family has created other products inspired by ideas sent in from kids across the globe. Currently, they’ve expanded from their traditional Elf on the Shelf kit into Elf Pets, an elf clothing line and even Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Musical in select cities this year.

Even with its growing popularity, Carol, Chanda and Christa want to keep one thing constant: to appreciate the elves’ simplicity. Christa shared with the Huffpost: “Everyone can enjoy The Elf on the Shelf for its general simplicity. It doesn’t need batteries. It’s all about imagination and some Christmas magic in the mix.”

If you’re looking for a heartwarming Elf on the Shelf alternative, you can try doing “Journey to Bethlehem” this Christmas.

What Are the Rules for Elf on the Shelf?

This Elf on the Shelf tradition is easy to uphold and follows three simple rules: First, children cannot touch the elf or he will lose his magic. If this happens, no worries, just set some cinnamon next to the elf overnight and his magical powers will revive. Second, the elf does not speak or move while the children are awake (Psst—for all parents out there, wait until your kids are asleep before you move your elf). The biggest rule of all? Have fun!

What Age Should You Start Elf on the Shelf?

The Elf on the Shelf tradition can be started at any age, but most parents recommend waiting until your child is between the ages of 2 and 3. They claim it’s the perfect sweet spot for children to appreciate and understand the elves’ magic while establishing this family tradition at a young age.

Families with older children can also join in on the fun by helping the parents set up the elves each night for their younger siblings or parents can tailor the elves’ shenanigans to their age level. No matter the age, there’s always magic to be found with Elf on the Shelf.

When Does Elf on the Shelf Come?

Your elf can appear any time you’d like, however many elves appear between November 24th and December 1st so they can have a month’s worth of fun until the elves fly back to the North Pole with Santa on Christmas Eve night.

Elf on the Shelf Ideas

Not sure where to start? Here are some of our favorite Elf on the Shelf ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Mischief in the kitchen: Have your elf create flour snow angels, snacking on a heaping plate of elf spaghetti or serving up mini pancakes.
  • Special delivery: On the first night back, have your elf set up in a present-wrapped box.
  • Sneaky footprints: Dust a footprint stencil with flour or powdered sugar and prop your elf up in a running stance.
  • Dress up: Dress up your elf in a fun customized sweater or with any of these fun Elf on the Shelf accessories below.

Christina Herbst
Christina is a Social Media Editor for Taste of Home. She enjoys trying out local restaurants and coffeehouses and adding copious amounts of garlic and cheese to any recipe she can get her hands on. In her free time, you can find her hunting down one-of-a-kind furniture pieces at thrift and vintage stores and DIYing trendy home decor crafts.