Admittedly, I might not be the most qualified person to discuss the vagaries of Christmas. It’s a holiday I celebrate culturally. (Hell, I’ll go to the opening of an envelope.) With its cheery yuletide traditions of bright decorations, joyous gift giving, trimmed trees and mistletoe hung in doorways to encourage sex, it’s a time of year that brings smiles to the faces of families as they gather ‘round the Norman Rockwell-like fireplace or settle in front of the Jumbotron in Dad’s man cave to fall asleep watching NFL football.
The politics of Christmas, other than that ridiculous controversy over saying “Happy Holidays,” is pretty much limited to what Garrison Keillor observed about how Christmas brings Democrats and Republicans together because there’s lots of deficit spending and everybody gets to cut down a tree.
As I recall from the song (much of my education, I’ve realized, has come from the lyrics of pre-rock-era songs) Santa Claus—aka St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas—knows who’s been naughty or nice and then magically brings the latest cool toys to the good kids, and lumps of “clean, beautiful clean coal” to those whose futures might include periodic stays behind prison bars.
I used to believe…well, I wouldn’t call it a belief actually, that Santa got his information about the kids from the two or three minutes the kids spent sitting on his lap at the local shopping mall.
I was wrong. Well, I wasn’t wrong until 2005 when, unbeknownst to me, an elf who sits on a shelf took over doing Santa’s espionage work. The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition—something of a marketing phenomenon in the world of toys—is, as it turns out, an odd-looking, velvet-clad NSA agent whose job is seasonal, lasting between Thanksgiving and Christmas just like kiosk clerks selling calendars at the mall.
The Elf on the Shelf is a 2005 children’s picture book, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. Written in rhyme, the book tells a Christmas-themed story about how Santa Claus knows who is naughty and nice.
The short answer? Spies—an international network, no less—of moles who monitor every child’s behavior and return to the North Pole nightly to report to the Director of the Christmas Intelligence Agency, i.e., Santa. This could all change in the very near future because Mrs. Claus, whose first name is Beatrice—bet you didn’t know that—and who is tired of living in a gingerbread house on melting ice, is pushing for her husband to become Trump’s Chief of Staff so she can live in Alexandria, Virginia, and join a fitness club.
The book goes on to describe elves making their daily visits to children from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, after which time they return to the North Pole until the next holiday season to make toys that no self-respecting kid would even want to be seen with. About half of the elves are sent to China to make the stuff kids really want. That might change if all this tariff stuff isn’t resolved and the high-tech elves will have to go back to carving anatomically correct Pinocchio puppets at the North Pole.
Because there have been more elf knockoffs than even Prada has suffered with its shoes and handbags, an unauthorized, cheaply made elf and a mimeographed copy of the story starts at around $3.99 and is shrink-wrapped. The real-deal Elf on the Shelf comes in a beautiful keepsake box that features a hardbound picture book and a small scout elf starting at around $799.00, with no money down and no payments for six months OAC. (Upgrades are available.)
Apparently, no child blessed with parents who’ve made the financial sacrifice to buy into the elf-on-a-shelf program goes unnoticed. Each child is scrutinized more intensely than Brett Kavanaugh was by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Until learning only recently about this whole elf-on-the-shelf thing, I had never associated the word “insidious” with Christmas. Times change; stuff happens.
This has got to put tremendous pressure on the kids and raise their levels of anxiety to eye-popping levels. In earlier times, kids figured out that their most recent behavior probably mattered most. Now, some red-jacketed elf has mandated an actual time frame. And to prove to the children that this elf knows his stuff, he mysteriously moves from the shelf during the night and hides.
And there is the tie-in to Easter. Like the festively dyed egg, Elf on the Shelf must be hunted and found. And then be returned to his (are elves gender-specific?) observation post on the shelf every morning.
Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. Nobody is allowed to touch the elf because if they do Christmas is denied and the entire family is transformed into pagans—people whose beliefs were determined by superstitions, fears and lies—but who managed to have a good time anyway.
Dr. David Kyle Johnston, whoever he is, calls the poor elf a “dangerous parental crutch,” with much the same reasoning as what he terms the “Santa lie.”
The “Santa lie,” which could double as a golf term, stands alone, except for the story of Noah, as the biggest lie we tell our children, followed closely by the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or the expected appearance each Passover of Eliahu before the coming of the “great and terrible day of Yahweh,” which involves high winds and wrath. (It’s no wonder Judaism hasn’t caught on better.)
I’m sure there are other lies we tell our children. In fact, I know there are, some more sustainable than others. Geri and I had our kids convinced for years that no car on the planet could move if the seat belts weren’t fastened. Geri made the kids stick out their tongues so she could see which one was telling a lie, which kept them wondering as they inspected their tongues in the bathroom mirror. “How does she know?” they asked.
When I was a little boy, my father told me that jet contrails appeared in the sky whenever an on-board toilet was flushed. Of course, he might not have known he was telling me a lie. We never talked about it.
Reindeer Stew (used without permission from Craft Beer at craftbeer.com)
2 pounds reindeer meat cut into cubes
1 pound turnips, peeled and diced
1 pound parsnips, peeled and diced
1 pound pearl onions, peeled
4 bottles of Tröegs Brewing Company‘s Mad Elf Ale
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup dried cherries
2 Tbs. honey
Butter, salt, pepper, flour as needed
Open a bottle of the Mad Elf Ale and start drinking.
Heat a large dutch oven on the stove and melt butter.
Season the reindeer cubes with salt and pepper, toss lightly in flour. Brown the meat in small batches and set aside. Add turnips, parsnips and pearl onions. Cook five minutes using the vegetables to get the brown bits off the pan. Use one bottle of Mad Elf Ale to fully deglaze pan.
Return meat to pan and stir to incorporate. Add a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme. Add three remaining beers to cover the stew just barely. Bring up to simmer, cover and cook very gently for 1-1.5 hours, or until meat is tender. Remove from heat, remove bay leaf and thyme.
Open the last ale (they come in six-packs) and drink it.
Stir in dry cherries and honey, allow to cool and place in refrigerator until next day.
To reheat, warm gently on the stove and serve with mashed potatoes.
Don’t forget to garnish with a cherry for Rudolph’s nose!
Photography by Courtney A. Liska