That’s the premise behind one of the holiday’s newest crazes—Elf on a Shelf. And it’s the brainchild of Carol Aebersold, a UT alumna.
Through self-publishing and grassroots marketing, Aebersold and her daughters have introduced their elf into tens of thousands of homes, while building a multi-million dollar product line.
Growing up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Aebersold had a scout elf named Fisbee. When Aebersold married, Fisbee tagged along with her to keep an eye on her children during the holidays. After Aebersold’s children were grown, one of her twin daughters, Chanda Bell, suggested that they could write a book about Fisbee and share their elf tradition with the world.
Aebersold resisted at first. Eventually, she gave in to Bell’s request, and in 2005 the pair created the beginnings of what would become the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon.
“It was something fun for both of us to do,” Aebersold said, reflecting on the project’s humble beginning. “But no one would publish the book. So we published it ourselves.”
Aebersold’s daughter Christa Pitts sold her house and moved in with her parents while Bell maxed out her credit cards in order to get the book printed.
“We asked Santa to send us some elves,” said Aebersold. “Then we printed the books and started going around to service leagues. After that it spread by word of mouth.”
And spread it has.
Less than a decade later, Elf on the Shelf is quite the holiday craze with more than a million elves having been adopted. It’s now sold at more than 10,000 stores.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the traditional time that the Elf on the Shelf watches children and reports back nightly to the North Pole, children wake up each morning eager to find where their elf is hiding. And parents say the elf provides a visible reminder for children to behave.
Last year, Elf on the Shelf inspired “The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story,” an animated television special on CBS. Aebersold—who got her bachelor’s degree in music education from UT in 1970—wrote two original songs for the show. This year, the elf appeared as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The tradition has also inspired a legion of moms, who devote time and energy into creative endeavors for their child’s elf. There are websites and Pinterest boards dedicated to the Elf on the Shelf and the shenanigans that ensue while children are sleeping.
“My elf wasn’t quite as creative as these spectacular moms,” said Aebersold. “But Santa is such a gentleman that he will send you the kind of elf that fits your family.”
Aebersold, whom kids often mistake for Mrs. Claus, said her favorite elf story is about a family who found that their elf had lodged himself in a box of breakfast cereal and had to be extricated with salad tongs.
Why salad tongs? All good elf families know that the most important rule of Elf on the Shelf is that you don’t touch the Elf on the Shelf. Being touched by a human could cause the elf to lose all of its magic and result in a trip to the emergency room at the North Pole.
During the holidays, Aebersold spends her time traveling to more than 100 events to support Elf on the Shelf. This year, the brand went global and elves traveled from the North Pole to the United Kingdom, Australia, and Ireland.
“It’s all about creating family moments,” Aebersold said. “It’s wonderful to have kids coming up to me every day to ask about the elves, or to have parents tell me how it reminds them of their childhood. It’s very heartwarming.”