For the past few years, I’ve watched with some amusement and bewilderment at the popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” For a mere $30, you can buy a book and an elf, then spend hours perusing Pinterest, Facebook, and countless blogs for ideas to have some fun with the kiddos.
But the thing is, I grew up with that elf. And the elf had a name: Charlie.
My grandma moved in with my family when I was around seven years old. When she moved in, she brought all her old (and I do mean old) Christmas decorations with her, including a cheery-faced elf she called Charlie. We had some other elves that were kind of similar but smaller; they sat with their knees pulled up to their little pointed chins, their arms looped around them. Charlie was bigger than these and had long since had his legs freed. I can’t remember when it began, but before Christmas one year Charlie started getting into trouble. When my sister and I would get home from school we would find Charlie in the craziest predicaments. I remember finding him dangling from a high branch on the Christmas tree, a doorknob, the corner of a picture frame, or other potentially dangerous spots for an eight-inch elf. He also got into some other problems that were obviously of his own doing, like when we’d find just a red felt leg hanging out of a cookie jar. But these problem spots often clued us in to treats that grandma had conjured up while we were at school, like freshly baked cookies in the cookie jar that Charlie had gotten stuck in.
My memories are a little hazy, but I think one year Charlie stuck around after the holidays. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think he was around for a whole year that time. We didn’t find him in a new spot every day, but he would occasionally pop up when we didn’t expect it. I can remember finding him on my nicely-made bed… and I hadn’t made it before school that day. Or with clean laundry that had been put away for me. Or with more freshly-baked cookies.
Unlike the current version of the elf, I don’t think Charlie’s adventures were something that my grandma had carefully thought through in order to orchestrate good behavior from my sister and me, or to try to engineer happy memories. It just kind of happened. Even though grandma and I didn’t always get along very well, little things like Charlie let me know that she did love me. And the un-engineered, just-happened happy memories are obviously still with me.
After I got married, Charlie came to live with me. Most Christmases found him once again dangling from a high branch on our Christmas tree. He hadn’t yet started getting into real trouble when we made the move around the world. The move meant that we had to get rid of most of our possessions… but I still have Charlie. He’s in a box in my sister’s basement with other Christmas decorations that didn’t make the move to Thailand with us. I’m planning to bring him back with me after we visit the U.S. next summer. I don’t see myself going down the “Elf on the Shelf” road with elaborately planned elf-adventures like I’ve seen on Pinterest. But still, I wonder what kind of new trouble he could get into in the tropics?