What's the Elf on the Shelf story? Here's how the beloved Christmas tradition originated

Editor’s note: This story may contain spoilers for prying little eyes!

Even Santa Claus gets by with a little help from his friends.

Although he sees you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake, Saint Nick relies on some intel from his trusty elves, officially known as Scout Elves, to determine if you've really been bad or good.

Small but mighty, these red-suited elves have been become a fixture in homes all around the world. They arrive in homes in late November or early December and fly back to the North Pole each night to report back to Santa. Parents embrace the magic and spend the month arranging their adopted elves in varying setups — some easy, some elaborate. And while it's all in good fun, there's a very specific goal in mind: to encourage kids to be on their best behavior in the days leading up to Santa's arrival.

Children can talk to their special visitors, though Scout Elves can only listen and never speak to humans. Only parents are allowed to touch them or else they’ll lose their magic — and what's the fun in that?

Whether you’re hosting one of these friendly-faced visitors for the very first time or simply want to understand the meaning behind the elfcapades you see on social media, keep reading to learn more about how The Elf on the Shelf became a cherished Christmas tradition for young and old.

The Elf on the Shelf story

Before there were Scout Elves, there was Fisbee, a pixie elf that Carol Aebersold received when she was a child. In 1974, Aebersold told her three children that the elf was there to keep an eye on them in the days leading up to Christmas and would report back nightly to Santa about their behavior.

Decades later, Carol and Chanda turned this charming family tradition into the book “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," which was illustrated by Coë Steinwart. With the support of their family — in particular Christa and her marketing expertise — the book and accompanying Scout Elf figure debuted at a book signing in Marietta, Georgia, in 2005.

elf on shelf with dog (The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®)
elf on shelf with dog (The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®)

Elf on the Shelf today

In what is likely one of the most successful self-publishing stories of all time, more than 17.5 million Scout Elves have been adopted around the world since their debut.

The Elf on The Shelf is the heart of The Lumistella Company, with Carol’s daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts at the helm as co-founders and co-CEOs. Beyond the book and Scout Elf figure, the tradition has blossomed into an enterprise, including everything from elf accessories to a stage musical to a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“We created The Elf on the Shelf tradition to help families have fun during the holidays by sparking moments of joy,” Bell tells TODAY.com.

Of course, one of the biggest joys of the Elf on the Shelf tradition is finding where the Scout Elf has landed after a trip back from the North Pole. Some Scout Elves might simply return to different spots on the same shelf, while others are found in some truly creative or comical scenes that the adults in the household simply can’t help but share on social media. "It seems Scout Elves have grown to be quite silly over the years. Yet, they always manage to match the personality of their family," Bell adds.

While Bell says that "no Scout Elf 'idea' is too big or small," The Lumistella Company has created many resources to help busy families “inspire” their elves for a fun and happy season, everything from the Claus Couture Collection of elf apparel to the Scout Elf Ideas app.

Elf on the Shelf rules

Sure, it may be all fun and games, but there are still some official rules that everyone should follow, including:

  • Children shouldn’t touch the Scout Elves or they'll lose their Christmas magic.

  • Scout Elves listen well, but they never speak to humans.

  • Scout Elves are always nice, often clever and humorous, but never cruel or naughty.

  • After reporting back to Santa at the North Pole each night, Scout Elves are found the next morning in a new spot in the home.

  • Scout Elves are adopted, not bought.

elves on shelf (The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®)
elves on shelf (The Lumistella Company, home of The Elf on The Shelf®)

What families love about Elf on the Shelf

Rebecca Rouse is a wife, mom of two and the home stylist/DIYer behind Rouse in the House.

“Obsessed would be an understatement,” she says of her household in December, when Ken their “main” Elf is visiting. That’s right, Ken doesn't fly solo — he’s married with two adorable baby elves. “The wife and children only come on special occasions,” Rouse tells TODAY.com. “My kids are always so ecstatic when they do.” Ken also writes personalized notes to the kids, which are a big hit.

Chantelle Hartman Malarkey, an interior designer, home chef and lifestyle expert, also eagerly awaits the opportunity to welcome her family’s Scout Elf each Christmas season.

“All of us have enjoyed [The Elf on the Shelf] tradition, no matter how old or young we are,” Malarkey tells TODAY.com. “When my kids wake up, I cannot wait to show them my elf masterpieces and all the creative trouble that will ensue.”

Kids of all ages enjoy the spirit of Christmas that the Scout Elf brings. Stew and Regina Huminski from Aberdeen, Maryland, pair their Scout Elf, Claude, with a stuffed Stitch from the Disney movie “Lilo & Stitch” and, as expected, hijinks ensue.

“There are years where we don’t always feel the holiday spirit so strongly and even a couple years where we didn’t decorate, but Stitch and Claude are always making mischief,” Stew tells TODAY.com.

Jeanna Crawford, the lifestyle influencer behind Jenna Loves Christmas on Instagram, sees the tradition as an opportunity for adults to get in on the holiday fun. “The magic of Elf on the Shelf reaches beyond the children the dolls are intended for and gives parents permission to play, flex their creative muscles and feel confident that they’re actively participating in the memory making during an otherwise busy holiday season," she says.

And with millions of households sharing in that memory making, it seems that indeed The Elf on the Shelf tradition will carry on for many years to come.

“I am thrilled that our family pastime continues to create merry moments which are being passed from one generation to the next with the earliest adopters of our tradition now sharing it with their own children," Bell says.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com