Growing up, or at least since the mid-two thousands, my house always had an Elf on the Shelf during the Christmas season. If you don’t know, Elves on the Shelf are these little elf dolls that are supposed to be scouts for Santa Claus. I named mine Humble. I think I was trying to name him Humboldt but got the words confused, though I’ve long forgotten why I wanted to name him Humboldt in the first place. Anyway, starting every Thanksgiving, my parents would stick Humble somewhere he could practice his domestic espionage, and at night he would head back to the North Pole to snitch on me to Santa. He always flew back before dawn, always hiding someplace new, and each morning was like a miniature Easter egg hunt to find him.
Of course, it was my parents who moved the damn thing every night. I guess I have some mixed feelings about the tradition. On the one hand, it was fun and magical, but on the other, it’s a pretty aggressive expansion on the practice of using Santa to keep your kids in line. I’ve also heard people say it normalizes government and corporate surveillance, but in the age of Alexa and Google, that’s a bit of a moot point.
But I think the weirdest thing about the Elf on the Shelf is how I was never allowed to touch the doll. I could talk to him, tell him what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas and all that, but touching him might drain him of his magic and keep him from returning to the North Pole where he belonged. Here’s the actual line from the storybook that comes with the doll.
“There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.”
Obviously, the taboo against touching the doll makes it harder for a kid to conceive that it’s actually their parents moving it around – or worse, testing that hypothesis – which to me really feels exceptionally manipulative. That might be because I never actually touched Humble, even years after I stopped believing in Santa. I have two younger siblings, so I guess I could rationalize it as not touching him for their sake, but… part of me just could not overcome the taboo about not touching the doll that my mother had instilled in me.
I’m eighteen now and in college, living in an off-campus apartment. I went home for Thanksgiving, of course, and sure enough, Humble was there on the mantlepiece. My sister Jenna loves the little creeper, full-heartedly believing he’s magic and works for Santa Claus. I felt a little guilty, her buying the story hook, line, and sinker, but decided it was none of my business.
When I got up Sunday morning, the day I was supposed to head back to my apartment, my mother asked me as covertly as she could if I knew where Humble was. He was missing, and no one in my house seemed to know where he went or would be likely to play such a cruel trick on our youngest member. When he couldn’t be found, my mom took Jenna aside and tried to explain that Humble must have been storm stayed at Santa’s Workshop. To everyone’s surprise, Jenna was delighted at the news. She said that she told Humble that she worried about me living away from home, and asked if he could spend some time at my apartment to make sure I was safe, and that’s where he must be.
My mother eagerly went along with this, since it gave her time to find a replacement doll, and told me to call as soon as I got to my apartment to confirm that Humble was safe and sound, *wink wink*. I promised to call the second I got back, and after saying my farewells, I embarked on the hours-long drive back to my apartment.
I managed to get back before dark, which of course comes obscenely early this time of year, and as I awkwardly tried to make my way through the door with all my travel bags at once, I caught a glimpse of something bright red standing out against the off-white of my kitchenette.
It was Humble, sitting atop my Keurig with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap. I knew it was Humble because my mother had put a bell from a Lindt chocolate bunny around his waist like a belt and stuck a miniature candy cane in it.
The normally upsetting situation of someone breaking into my apartment was tempered by the fact that it had obviously been a member of my family, but who, and why?
Instead of calling them like I promised, I took a picture and texted it to my mom with the message ‘Did you do this?’.
Moments later the following conversation ensued:
‘Sweetie, y would u steal Humble? U know how much ur sister loves him’.
‘Mom, I swear, I didn’t steal him. I just found him here when I got home. If you didn’t do this, check to make sure you still have my spare key, because I know I locked up before I left.’
‘K, I just checked. It’s right where it should b. I asked ur father, and he doesn’t know anything either. He’s looking over the security camera footage to make sure we weren’t broken in to. Sweetie, I swear we didn’t do this. Maybe u should come back home or stay in a hotel until we figure this out.’
At this point I’ve searched my entire apartment for any sign of forced entry, a hidden intruder, something missing or damaged, and found absolutely nothing. The only thing out of place is Humble, and it makes no goddamn sense.
The most likely explanation was that someone in my family was messing with me, but I couldn’t think of anyone who would do this to me and Jenna, let alone have been able to have stolen Humble, drive to my apartment, place it, and then drive back undetected. The only other rational explanation was that I had a very stealthy, very skilled stalker who’d chosen an oddly specific way to mess with me.
Of course, there was an obvious irrational explanation for where Humble came from, but I shut down that line of thought immediately. It’s just a damn doll.
I really didn’t want to drive anymore and decided I couldn’t miss class the next day or waste money on a hotel, so I asked my boyfriend to spend the night, who was more than happy to oblige. That still left the issue of what to do with Humble. Obviously, I should’ve just mailed him back home, but that would’ve required that I move him.
That had to be why they did it. They knew I was still afraid to touch Humble and they were teasing me. That had to be it. However they did it, that had to be it.
This was good though, I thought. My unwillingness to touch Humble was childish, and I was all grown-up now. I needed to move past it. The doll was sitting right there on my coffee machine. All I had to do was grab him, put him in a box, and ship him out. My little sister gets her doll back, and I become just a little bit more mature. There was no rational reason not to do it.
I honestly can’t tell you how long I just stood there, staring at Humble, trying to muster up the courage to pick him up. It was ridiculous, but I just couldn’t do it. My mother had ingrained that taboo into me too damn well, and touching Humble would be like crushing a fairy.
“Hey, Humble,” I started mumbling. “I know my sister asked you to keep an eye on me, and I know you’re just trying to make her happy, but you’re supposed to be watching her to report back to Santa, remember? I know you used to watch me, but I’m grown-up now. I don’t even get presents from Santa anymore. You don’t need to watch me, and I’d hate for your report on Jenna to be inaccurate because you’re here and not there. So please, after you report back to the North Pole tonight, go back to Jenna and let her know I’m doing okay.” I opened the cupboard and pulled out a pack of blueberry turnovers, placing one beside Humble. “That’s for Santa. I know it’s probably not his favorite kind of cookie, but it’s all I have right now. Merry Christmas, Humble.”
I don’t know why I said those things. I don’t know why I gave him the cookie. I didn’t actually believe he was one of Santa’s Elves. At least, I don’t think I did.
My boyfriend Sean arrived shortly after that. If he noticed Humble, he didn’t mention it. He’s a pretty typical college-age guy and so was eager to get to our bedroom activities, and I was eager for anything to get my mind off of Humble, so we got straight to it. I decided that if I still couldn’t find the will to box up Humble in the morning, I’d just asked Sean to do it for me.
I woke up the next morning in a considerably better mood, courtesy of the previous night’s afterglow. Sean was still sound asleep beside me, per usual, and then I remembered Humble, and that I would have to move him to make my coffee. I thought about waking Sean up for it, but told myself I was being ridiculous and to just do it myself.
But when I opened my bedroom door and looked into my kitchenette, Humble was gone, and so was the cookie.
My first thought was that Sean must have moved him at some point, but the only time he ever got out of bed was to use the washroom, which was adjacent to the bedroom and didn’t attach to the living area. He had proven himself time and time again to be completely incapable of getting out of bed without waking me up, so there was no way he went out there while I was sleeping. Even if he had, he never would have cleaned up the cookie. He might have eaten it, but then would have gone for more and left the package out (I know I’m not making him sound great here, but he’s mostly a drinking/bang buddy and I’m not planning on us being a long-term thing).
I immediately started searching for Humble, trying to find where in my tiny apartment he possibly could have gone, when I heard a notification from my phone, specifically the one I had set for texts from my sister. I sudden dread swept over me, a fear of something that should have been impossible somehow becoming the only conceivable explanation.
I picked up my phone, swiped it open, and when I clicked on messages, I saw a photo of Humble sitting on my sister’s bed, with the accompanying text:
‘Humble’s back! He wants me to tell you that Santa says thanks for the blueberry cookie. Chocolate chip’s his favorite, but it was still yummy!’
I was in shock, after that. I didn’t know what to think. How could someone have stolen the doll, brought it here, snuck it out again, and then brought it home without leaving any sort of evidence? And why? I got another text from my Mom later, who seemed content to write the whole thing off as me and my sister playing a trick on her as payback for everything she ever made us believe about the doll. I insisted we weren’t, but soon gave up. I couldn’t blame my Mom for thinking that. It’s what I would have thought if I was in her position. I wish I had been in her position, instead of trying to figure out if I was being stalked, haunted by a possessed doll, or just going insane.
I was able to rule out the first option fairly quickly. I set up my phone to record the living room during the night. Nobody came in the front door, and there wasn’t the slightest sound of anyone coming in through any windows. And yet, come morning, there was Humble, cozied up in the camera’s blind spot. There was no way anyone could have put him there. I still couldn’t move him though, and I was through talking to him. This time Sean did ask about the doll, but all I told him was “It’s my sister’s, don’t touch it”, and he shrugged it off.
I set up my phone to record Humble that night, but it automatically restarted for updates and Humble escaped back to my sister unseen. It’s been going on like this for weeks now, Humble going back and forth between me and my sister. I’ve had Sean over every night, but I didn’t tell him why though, just that I was stressed with exams and the holidays and that I needed the dopamine boost, and that I wanted as much time together as possible before the Christmas Break split us up. He didn’t complain.
I don’t know what I thought he was protecting me from. Humble was just a doll, and he had never shown any signs that he meant me any harm. He was just a scout elf doing his job. It’s funny – that the phenomenon that was causing me so much terror was delighting my sister, and would have delighted me when I was younger. To Jenna, a toy moving on its own was all part of the Holiday magic. To me, it was an omen that the world did not operate the way I thought it did, and forced me to question my very sanity.
Yesterday, Friday the 20th, was the last day of classes. Humble was with my sister, and my boyfriend caught an overnight Greyhound to his family, so it was the first night in nearly three weeks that I was on my own. My plan was to drive back to my family on Saturday since I didn’t want to drive that far in the dark. This would, of course, mean I’d be left alone with Humble when he returned in the morning, which I coped with through my normal weekly ritual of excessive underage drinking.
I woke up this morning like I do most Saturdays; with a mild to moderate hangover and only a vague recollection of the previous night. I reached over to try to nudge my boyfriend to get me some coffee, only to remember he wasn’t there. I groaned and forced myself out of bed, stumbled out into the living area, and – just as I had expected – I’m greeted by Humble.
Except that today, he’s leaned up against the front door. I can’t leave the apartment – not without moving him. I was trapped.
I completely broke down then, dropping down to my knees and sobbing, demanding to know why he was tormenting me like this. I hadn’t done anything other than grow up.
That’s when I realized that, since I was crying and screaming at a doll, maybe I wasn’t as grown-up as I thought. I had thought that taking on five figures in student loans, getting shitfaced at least once a week, and settling for a practical boyfriend had all meant I was an adult, but I guess I was wrong.
Humble was supposed to get his power from the love of the child who owned him, and that used to be me. I guess that by never overcoming my reluctance to move him, I never really broke that bond, and he was legitimately split between me and Jenna. That really was it then, wasn’t it? All I had to do was shove him aside. I could even just ask someone to come over and when they came in Humble would just be pushed out of the way, but even that felt wrong somehow. As harrowing as this entire experience had been, there was still some part of me that was enchanted by the magic of it all, a part of me that most people lost a long time ago, and it was a part of that I still wasn’t ready to give up. And what about Jenna? My sweet little sister who loves her elf doll and still wanted to share him with me so that she’d know I’d be safe on my own. I couldn’t take away her experiencing actual Christmas Magic, could I?
I took another photo of Humble and texted it to Jenna, explaining that he had trapped me inside and I wouldn’t be coming home until tomorrow. She understood completely – she would never dare to move Humble either. Of course, a few minutes later I got a call from my Mom, and she was livid. She thought I was just too hungover to come home, ranting about how this was going to throw off the Holiday plans and what an irresponsible drunk I was turning into. Considering that I’m presently coping with the whole incident by dipping into a bottle of cherry schnapps I got as an early Christmas gift, I can’t say she’s wrong.
I’m still in my apartment right now. Humble hasn’t moved, of course, and I can’t force myself to move him. I’m not mad at him. I don’t think he’s doing this to hurt me. I think he just honestly believes I’m still one of his kids, and he’s doing his job the best he can. Today’s been rough, but tomorrow will be better. He’ll head back to my sister, I’m sure. Why wouldn’t he? That’s what he’s been doing for the past three weeks. He’ll be out of my way and I’ll be able to leave and head back home. My mom will have calmed down and just be happy to have me home and everything will be perfect, though she’ll probably try to talk me into doing dry January with her. All that matters is that with me and my sister under the same roof, Humble will stay put until Christmas Eve, and then this nightmare before Christmas will all be over. At least, until next year.
Maybe by then I’ll be a little more grown-up.
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