It's not just the Elf on the Shelf; children have been taught for centuries that dangerous authorities are watching and judging them.
And that's the whole point of the Elf on the Shelf, the bright-eyed, Kewpie-esque doll that millions of parents display around their homes in December as a reminder to children to behave. The elf, the story goes, is an agent reporting back to Santa Claus, and he's tasked with documenting any seasonal misdeeds for his jolly boss.
The elf also, a new paper argues, promotes acceptance of a surveillance state. An excerpt from co-authors Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin:
Children... may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls.
Instead, the elf encourages children "to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures." And though the little guy is not, as hoax-busting website Snopes assured the Internet this week, secretly a popular program instituted by the NSA, he still normalizes "dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures."
Of course, not everyone accepts the elf in the first place. Distrust is well documented in Amazon reviews, as Kate Tuttle wrote for us in 2012.
The word "narc" appears in several of these negative reviews (so does "creepy"), and it's what many of my friends brought up as well: Why inject a note of fear and suspicion into a season and a holiday that are meant to be about love, togetherness, and forgiveness?
Even the rhyming name evokes another surveillance term—eye in the sky—which refers to the ubiquity of surveillance cameras.
Okay. So the Elf on the Shelf is somewhere between mildly and overtly threatening on the 1984 spectrum. But the idea of non-familiar surveillance in the home has been baked into the way people have celebrated Christmas for centuries. Children have long been warned that Santa Claus sees them when they're sleeping and knows when they're awake. Santa, they're told, keeps lists of citizens based on this judgment. The ACLU lampooned this dynamic in an anti-NSA campaign last year:
These days, Santa hardly needs his army of mall-based look-alikes to report back to him. Evidence of his omnipresence is all around. There are now apps designed to look like a person is receiving an incoming call from Santa and editing tools to make it look like you have a video of Santa eating cookies in your living room. Oh, and by the way, the Defense Department actively tracks his movements, which sends a message that maybe the guy can't be trusted.
The scarier side of Santa has been well explored in popular culture. The 1984 slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night has become a cult classic. In the animated series Futurama, Santa Claus is a killer robot who monitors people's behavior remotely and executes anyone who ends up on his naughty list. (He counts Kwanzabot and the Hanukkah Zombie as his friends.) There's alsoKrampus, a half-goat half-demon sidekick to Santa who, in German legend, kidnaps misbehaving kids. In Japan, knife-wielding namahage go looking for naughty children this time of year. Iceland counts Gluggagægir the "window peeper" among its Yule Lads, trolls who come into homes and wreak myriad havoc in the days leading up to Christmas. (There's also Gáttaþefur, the doorway sniffer, which means that kids in Iceland aren't just being watched but smelled, too.)
Across many cultures, a "common thread of darkling elves and yuletide disciplinarians is often just below the surface," The New York Times wrote in 2000. "Theologically, Christmas functioned in part as a children's version of judgment day," Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, told the Times. So is it any wonder that some kids freak out at the sight of Santa Claus? Or that, as Pinto and Nemorin write in their paper, some kids have taken to ringing their own doorbells to notify the Elf on the Shelf that they're home.
Of course, Christmastime surveillance exists outside the realm of fantasy, too. In the 1970s, "Operation Santa Claus" had New York Police Department officers dress up as Santa Claus, hiding pistols and handcuffs beneath their soft red jackets.
These Santa cops would merrily greet children but stayed in "constant surveillance" mode, looking for pickpockets and muggers among midtown shoppers. The ringing of Santa's bell, The New York Times reported in 1973, could be a signal to another nearby officer to chase a suspect.
And there's a holiday lesson here, too. You probably are being watched, but not always by the person—or elf—you think.