I walked into my friend’s house, and her elf was lying beneath a tiny “blanket” (a paper towel) in the corner of her kitchen. I looked up at her with an eyebrow raised, and she said, “The elf is sick. He’s in bed for a few days.” I laughed and swallowed the urge to say ‘I told you so.’ It was 17 days into December, and she was sick of moving the freaking elf or waking up to disappointed kids when she forgot. This little sickness-scam bought her a couple of days while the elf recovered from the flu.
I have lots of friends who love Elf on the Shelf as a sweet game with their kids. If you love it then knock yourself out! Enjoy! But I never got on board. I just saw Elf on the Shelf a little differently. If you’re an elf-lover, don’t hate me for telling you why.
1. Integrity vs. good behavior
The story of Elf on the Shelf is that he’s always watching and reporting back to Santa about who’s naughty and who’s nice. The rest of the year, I try to teach my kids that integrity is what you do when no one is watching. I know it is subtle, but part of me thinks this elf teaches my kids the idea that we should perform well when something we want is at stake. Of course, I want my kids to behave. NOW. However, I ultimately decided that even if the Elf might get me some Decembers of good behavior, it actually worked against my long term goal of integrity. Some of my friends give me a hard time for being over-the-top with my thoughts on this, but I believe we send our kids subtle messages about whats important all the time, and it forms them more than we know. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” I want everything I do as a parent to reinforce integrity and accountability before God, whether or not I (or the elf) are watching.
- The December crush
I feel for all of us. Every parent has some sort of desire for their kids to have “magical” Christmas memories. So we decorate everything, bake everything, try to keep up at work, be holiday-party-ready, attend all the special events and get the gifts under the tree while making hot chocolate for the fun family holiday outings. At the end of the marathon days in December, I just decided I didn’t want or need the added everyday pressure of increasingly creative executions for arranging an elf. Yes, my kids did the “everyone at school has an elf, why don’t we?” And I just told them honestly the same reasons I’m writing here. For my sanity, I keep to a few holiday traditions that I can actually do with good cheer. It’s OK to let yourself off the hook on the unending holiday “musts.” I say no to the Elf’s demands, and it feels good!
You might think I’m wrong about everything above and love the elf. You may be concluding I’m too serious, (a few people have accused me of that!) but there’s one more and it’s the most important to me.
- It’s not the story I want to tell.
There is an actual, real Christmas story and it’s about God coming to earth as a human being with the goal to save me from my sin and offer me the gift of eternal life. There’s so much great fodder in the real Christmas story—the heavenly choir, the terrified shepherds, the star in the sky, an angry king, a miraculous conceptions (make sure you’ve had a sex talk first if you get into that one: kids miss nothing!). You name it, its in there. We wanted our home and our memories wrapped around that story. This conviction has actually been incredibly freeing and helpful. It helps me make choices about how to decorate and what activities and traditions we do or don’t do. For instance, I’m not a Santa-hater but I never decorate with Santas. Instead, I do angels, lights, stars, etc. I like trees too because they’re neutral. These things just help me focus our minds and my home on this story:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I love Christmas. I want all the memories and magic, too. I’m just not doing the elf. I’m not very crafty, but I sure would love it if someone put creative energy into something as fun and engaging as the Elf — but wrapped it around the birth of Jesus. I’m thinking something with donkeys??? Just a thought. Now THAT would make me stay up late drinking wine and trying to get creative. And I’ll be the first one in line to pay you $29.99.
Until then, I’m still a ‘no’ on the elf.
Kids have a million opportunities these days. So, how do you decide what’s best for your kid to do?
As soon as the calendar turns to November my thoughts turn to Thanksgiving. There’s already been talk in my life about plans and hosts and friends and food. This year I want you to spend time not only preparing yourself for the big day but also preparing your heart for it. I’ve noticed over the past year or so that I turn more quickly to negativity and cynicism than ever before. These are not words I’d use to describe myself – and I don’t ever want to – but honestly? they just seem to come easier right now; maybe because of all we’ve been through the past 2 years.
In November I don’t want to be told to “count my blessings.” It feels trite and dismissive of real things going on. When someone tells me to do that, it reminds me of when I’d go to Target with four babies, and they’d all begin to melt down in tears or snacks or poops and an older woman would say to me; “treasure every minute with them.” It made me want to scream, negating the very real struggle I had right then and there.
Gratitude doesn’t have to feel like that. Gratitude is actually a powerful spiritual practice that rescues us. It pulls us out of cynicism, negativity and blindness to God. It gives us a new way to see what’s around us – maybe one that’s more real than how we look at our lives every day. It is not (just) a fleeting emotion we feel when someone helps us out, or something falls into place, or we catch a glimpse of a previously hidden blessing. Gratitude is not just felt emotionally, it’s practiced intentionally: it’s a deliberate reflection that becomes our ongoing disposition.
And as it does, gratitude heals.
We can deliberately practice gratitude and become healthier spiritually and physically. Not only my personal experience tells me this—the Bible and modern psychology are entirely cohesive: gratitude is so very good for us, both inside and out.
It’s correlated with lower stress levels, less depression, and less neuroses. (And who wouldn’t want to set down a few of those?!) It’s not just neurological health. The Bible claims gratitude as a key to spiritual health as well. Psalm 92:1 says, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” When God showed up in the flesh on earth as a man named Jesus, his life overflowed with gratitude in both good and bad moments, embodying the instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “In everything give thanks.” In everything! Everything means everything.
Whatever you are facing there is a way to give thanks straight through it. You can empower your own healing in the midst of anything with gratitude. The more I search for God in thanksgiving, the more I find him at work.
Gratitude heals disappointment. Gratitude is a statement of certainty that the work of God will not be thwarted even through pain and loss. I think back to the moment in 2020 where I completely lost it over schools and businesses remaining closed for months on end—the loss of work for my husband, the end of my grad school graduation, the loss of opportunities for my kids they’d worked hard for…. Who didn’t have one of these moments, amiright? I know loss has looked like sickness and death of all kinds for you and probably continued into 2021 in many ways.
Jesus also knew loss. He lost one of his closest friends. He wept over his death. And then he expressed gratitude—just before raising him from the dead! Gratitude can co-exist with hurt and loss. Gratitude also doesn’t diminish the power of God to resurrect absolutely anything from the dead. We can always thank God for his power to return anything that has been lost.
Gratitude is power over bitterness. Ever tempted to blame God for taking things from you or delaying what you’d like to have? Gratitude pushes off the build-up of bitterness and sees ways that God is providing. Gratitude finds enough with what the world says isn’t enough. Jesus said a prayer of thanks when facing a crowd of many thousands and then offered up to God the small snack he had in his hands. God multiplied that food and fed everyone there! Gratitude looks past our poverty to a God who owns it all.
Gratitude builds resilience. We’ve heard plenty about immunity recently, right? Gratitude is like that: it’s our body’s ability to resist toxins upon future contact. You will be disappointed again; lose again; face death again. Gratitude chooses to see a good God in the middle of bad things. It builds trust in a God that’s bigger and above all—good. “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good.” (Psalms 136:1). The next time we confront whatever toxin comes at us, we’re stronger in spirit. Jesus grew in such strength and trust in the goodness of his Father that he actually said “thank-you” just before undergoing the unbelievable suffering of being killed on a cross! The more I continue to develop a disposition of gratitude, the easier I find it to resist mistrust, anger, or negativity that rises up in me.
Thanksgiving is not just a day with some turkey—it’s an act of warfare against what wants to kill your soul —disappointment, bitterness, and mistrust in God.
I don’t care if you make a pretty list in a journal, grumble it under your breath, or share it at the dinner table: just practice gratitude this year intentionally. Fight for yourself. Go after your own emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Let’s DO some thanksgiving and finish 2021 strong.