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Elf On The Shelf, Santa
And The Surveillance State

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Image by Michel Curi and used under a Creative Commons license.
Seemingly-Innocent Holiday Figures Like Santa Claus And, More Recently, Elf On The Shelf Could Actually Affect The Way Children Accept Surveillance

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 24, 2016 — Over the past decade, The Elf on the Shelf has quickly become a Christmas tradition of sorts alongside leaving out milk and cookies for Santa or drunkenly arguing with your dad at dinner. But the seemingly whimsical tradition — in which parents leave an elf doll in various spots throughout the house during the holidays — may not be all fun and games. In fact, the Elf’s detractors argue that it is marketing disguised as tradition and ultimately conditions children to blindly accept intrusive surveillance.

The Elf on the Shelf tradition is based off of the 2004 children’s book The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition written by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. The book follows scout elves that work for Santa Claus by visiting homes and reporting good and bad behavior back to jolly old St. Nick. Nowadays, parents can visit the Elf on the Shelf website to find stores that sell merchandise, project ideas for the kids and other items related to the brand.

The interactive book comes with a scout elf that parents can place in various spots around the house. It functions as a game of sorts as children are encouraged to find the elf’s new hiding place every morning. Though, whether that game is a healthy one for children is up for debate.

In their 2014 article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives entitled “‘The Elf on the Shelf’ and the Normalization of Surveillance, Drs. Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin write “Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus.”

This game incentives good behavior among children during the holidays because the elf could be anywhere and is always watching. This all-seeing, but unseen watcher has ominous similarities with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison which Michel Foucault used to illustrate modern surveillance states, according to the Pinto and Nemorin. This could set a dangerous precedent for impressionable children by teaching them that this type of surveillance is acceptable.

The Panopticon prison design includes a central tower surrounded by a circular building full of cells. The main feature of the design is that it would allow a guard to observe all prisoners without giving any individual prisoner the ability to know if they were being watched.

Pinto and Nemorin continue, “What is troubling is what The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state. Further to this, The Elf on the Shelf website offers teacher resources, integrating into both home and school not only the brand but also tacit acceptance of being monitored and always being on one’s best behaviour--without question.”

Beyond the potential psychological impacts of the The Elf on the Shelf, there are also practical surveillance concerns to worry about. In “Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the Going Dark Debate,” published by the Berkman Center Internet & Society at Harvard University, the authors point out that Elf on the Shelf-type devices of the future, complete with Internet connectivity and monitoring systems, could be used for surveillance purposes.

But, is The Elf on the Shelf a new phenomenon or simply the next step in a trend that has seen the Christmas/Santa Claus mythos transformed into a defacto surveillance/behavioral tool by modern cultural pressures in the 20th and 21st century? The latter is likely true.

Historically, Santa Claus has fairly ambiguous roots, though much of the incarnation of the figure was inspired by the fourth century St. Nicholas of Myra, a saint more characterized by benevolence than surveillance.

According to the The New Catholic Encyclopedia, “The oldest documentary evidence of the Nicholas legends is an eleventh-century manuscript in Karlsruhe Library. The dowry legend was combined in Germany with local folklore to make St. Nicholas into the bringer, on the eve of his feast, of secret presents for children; in the English-speaking countries his name was corrupted into Santa Claus, and the legend became associated with Christmas Eve."

While rewarding good children has long been a part of the Santa myth, it appears the heavy emphasis on Santa’s surveillance powers is a modern phenomena and the connections between Christmas and Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon predate The Elf on the Shelf. In the essay “Making a List, Checking It Twice: The Santa Claus Surveillance System, published as a part of the collection Christmas - Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal, Richard Hancuff and Noreen O’Connor argue that Santa has functioned as the all-knowing, but unseen surveillance state stand-in in pop culture for over 75 years thanks to songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and books like The Polar Express.

Of the song, they write, “No matter what era or genre, the song admonishes those who would ‘pout, cry, or shout’ to behave well because the all-seeing Santa, the bringer of gifts, can see, and presumably pass judgement on, their behavior.”

Similarly, Hancuff and O’Connor point to the extensive, technologically-advanced surveillance system employed by Santa and his elves in The Polar Express book and film adaptation as evidence of the Santa’s function as a stand in for the surveillance state in pop culture.

With these thoughts in mind, the normally-jovial chorus “He's making a list; And checking it twice; He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice; Santa Claus is coming to town,” and the creepier, “He sees you when you're sleeping; He knows when you're awake; He knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness sake” take on more sinister overtones. Overtones that, when applied with using the power of one of the world’s most prominent myths, can both scare children into obedience and, potentially, train them to passively accept state-sponsored surveillance.

Merry Christmas.
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