The History of the Elf on the Shelf

You see them everywhere (whether you want to or not), but do you know the actual story behind them?


Photo: Super Busy Mum

The Elf on the Shelf was created by Mother Carol Aebersold and her two twin daughters, Chada Bell and Christina Pitts, after the tradition originated in their family home in the 1970’s in Georgia. Growing up, Carol’s two girls had an elf themselves named Frisbee who, per the tradition, would move to different places each night after reporting back to Santa. 

As kids they loved the idea of being able to tell Santa directly what they wanted for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know. According to Pitts, this was the tradition, but mother Carol  said growing up when she was a kid Frisbee was more of a tree ornament that stayed on the tree and didn’t move, she updated the story when she had kids, including that it would magically fly around at night and if touched, would lose its magic. 

The tradition, or rather writing of the book that over 11 million people have indulged in, happened after Bell quit her job as a  Reading Language Arts teacher to care for her son and took a job with her dad working at the family’s small self-owned engineering and fabrication firm. Since the factory was an hour and a half away, Bell often stayed with her parents, so in the downtime they had one day, she offered up the idea to her mum, who was suffering from empty-nest syndrome; some minor health issues; and issues with the family business, to turn their childhood tradition into a book. 

In 2005, Bell and her mother, Carol Aebersold, invited Pitts on board, so she quit her job at QVC and moved to Georgia. To get the business started, they both took out a line of credit, Pitts put up money from selling her house, and Aebersold cleaned out her retirement account to form their own publishing house called Creatively Classic Activities and Books. 

They started out by publishing 5,000 copies of their book and had a local watercolor artist, Coë Steinwart, do the art for the book.

For a few years, the ladies sold their Elf on the Shelf kits at trade shows, markets, online, and appeared at bookstores to show the product.

This all changed in 2007 when Jennifer Garner was photographed carrying an Elf on the Shelf box in New York. That next month, the “Today Show” ran a segment on The Elf on the Shelf, and after that, Bell and company were flooded with calls, orders, and more bookstores and toy stores started selling their product. 

16 years after its initial launch, The Elf on the Shelf is a worldwide phenomenon with more than 19 million elves being “adopted” from the U.S all the way to Mexico, The U.K, and Zimbabwe. 

The trio uses “adoption” instead of bought, as they are based in “The North Pole” instead of Atlanta, they work “For Santa” instead of themselves, and they are “flying,” not that they were moved. 

The Elf on The Shelf inspired many spin offs such as: Mensch on a Bench, and even some memes and video parodies like “Pennywise Elf on the Shelf” and “Devito on a Dorito.”

Although not all the feedback on The Elf on the Shelf is positive, they’ve received criticism from parents, journalists, and psychologists who said they were commercializing Christmas, making surveillance normal, and it was just plain creepy. On top of this, overworked parents have complained about unrealistic expectations for the elf placement on Pinterest and social media.

In response to the criticism, Bell has put an emphasis on the idea that the tradition is what families make it, and that the book never tells of any crazy setups or anything that the elf gets up too; therefore, it does not set up a way that the elf does or doesn’t behave in your home. 

The company has since then added Elf Pets, a reindeer and a St. Bernard, each with a storybook. The reindeer shows how Santa’s sleigh flies, and the St. Bernard story explains how Santa gets his magic from “Christmas Cheer” that comes from acts of kindness. They launched those to answer kids questions about The North Pole and teach positive lessons about kindness and generosity. They also have Letters to Santa that come with a book and writing materials, including a paper that they write their wish list on that is then put in the oven, with the help of a parent, to shrink it down to elf-size. The elf takes it back to Santa in The North Pole and brings it back in the form of an ornament to hang on the tree. 

Alongside all these, they also have a 23 minute animated holiday special released in 2011, as well as a clothing line and activity kits for elves, a book of elf scene ideas, The Elf on the Shelf birthday edition, and since 2012 have had an Elf on the Shelf balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

16 Years, and more than 19 million people buying the book later, The Elf on The Shelf continues to be a hit among homes all over the world… spreading the holiday cheer one shelf (and pose) at a time.