Magical, or just plain irritating?

Chanda A Bell, left, Carol Aebersold and Chanda’s twin sister Christa Pitts
Chanda A Bell, left, Carol Aebersold and Chanda’s twin sister Christa Pitts
Image: Getty Images

The Elf on the Shelf who promotes good behaviour has become a multi-million global phenomenon. Anna Tyzack meets the toy’s creator

Chanda A Bell has a lot to answer for. It’s thanks to her that mothers across the country find themselves scurrying around the house at midnight trying to find a new hiding place for the family elf.

More than 11 million families now own one of her Elf on the Shelf boxes, containing a story book promoting good behaviour and a toy elf that turns children into Father Christmas if they’re bad.

And this year the Elf on the Shelf is taking off in South Africa also, with the Crazy Store one of many retailers offering a version of the seasonal toy.

The only catch is that parents are responsible for moving the elf to a new position every evening: as a result, social media is awash with pictures of the toys in weird and wonderful scenarios as competitive parents – Victoria Beckham and Robbie Williams included – try to “keep the magic alive” for their children.

The rest of us, meanwhile, wake up with a jolt at 3am having forgotten to move the elf – or bow out altogether, cursing whoever invented the latest ridiculously time-consuming ritual to cross the Atlantic.

Yet for all my cynicism, within minutes of meeting Bell, a fortysomething, Christmas-obsessed American with twinkly blue eyes, I have resolved to make more effort. She laughs politely when I show her a picture on Facebook of one family’s elf with its leg in plaster, captioned “parenting win”, before insisting that whoever posted it is missing the point.

“No one is forcing parents to go to any trouble,” she argues. “If it’s complicated for you, make it less complicated. Elves are about happiness and kindness and children exercising a little self-control.”

Elf on the Shelf is such a global phenomenon that it’s hard to believe that the unassuming woman sitting opposite me, a teacher and mother of two from Georgia, came up with it.

“It’s morphed in to something bigger than I ever imagined,” she says. “But then that’s the sign of a good tradition, isn’t it?”

Still, the level of interest has forced her to employ a legal team to protect her intellectual property and when she shows me one of her elves, I’m forced to admit that my own is a paltry fake.

It was her own mother, Carol Aebersold, who first introduced an elf to the family. Chanda and her two siblings adopted him by giving him a name, just as children are encouraged to do in the Elf on the Shelf story.

They would share their Christmas lists with him – even though he was under strict orders from Santa not to talk to them – and tell him their secrets.

“His sole responsibility was to watch the children’s behaviour and report it to Santa each night,” explains Aebersold in the book. “When they awoke, they’d discover he’d returned from the North Pole and was resting in a new position.”

Bell assumed every child had an elf but when she had her own children, Taylor, who is now 16, and Kendyl, 11, she couldn’t find one to buy.

One night, while at her parents’ house, she spotted her childhood elf and suggested to her mother they write a story about him.

“She was struggling with an empty nest and my father’s engineering business wasn’t doing so well. There was no agenda other than Mum and I doing something nice together,” she explains.

Over the next eight months they crafted a story based on their own family tradition and, with the help of a “How To” book, sent out proposals to agents.

“A day and a half later we had a literary agent in New York, but then no one wanted to publish it. It’s funny to think you couldn’t sell an elf to anyone back then.”

After numerous rejection letters – one suggested the only place for the elf was in the damaged goods bin – their agent advised them to self-publish.

“I still don’t know how we pulled it off. We didn’t have any money; we didn’t know anyone with any money.”

They did have a good credit score, though, and the expertise of her twin sister, Christa, an on-screen host for QVC who left her job to come and work “for Sant”.

The initial outlay was £25,000 and they sold the first 500 elves at the launch party. Then, for the next three years they took their Elf on the Shelf sets to Christmas trade fairs, explaining the tradition to anyone who would listen and making just enough money to reinvest in new stock.

“There was no magic formula – we would offer mums free balloons and then tell them our story in 30 seconds. If we got to the part about naming the elf they would be sold.”

It wasn’t until 2007 that Elf on the Shelf truly began to take off.

“We’d put in the hard work and sacrifice and now we had some luck,” Bell says. “At a trade show one of our original stockists got up in front of people and told them about us, and suddenly 75 people were throwing orders at us.”

This led to Elf on the Shelf being sold in 250 stores, and a few weeks later Jennifer Garner, the actress, was photographed with an elf of her own.

“It was as if we’d paid her but of course we hadn’t,” Bell says.

A segment on the Today show followed, and they were swamped.

Today the three women still have full control of the company, which employs 85 people.

Along with Elf on the Shelf sets, which retail for £19.99 (R365) in John Lewis and Amazon, they now sell elf clothing – why wouldn’t you want to dress up your elf as a Christmas tree? – and a Letters to Santa set, where children can bake their Christmas lists and hang the hardened miniature version on the tree.

“They write these adorable lists and now you can keep them forever,” Bell says, with a Disney-eque smile. “Our goal is to imbue the idea of the North Pole, of selfless generosity. We stand for kindness, generosity and faith.”

Does it trouble her that she’s encouraging children to believe in something that isn’t true?

“There’s a loveliness to believing in something you can’t see,” Bell blinks. “Kids grow up too fast; let them believe in some magic. I was the kid who used to look out of the window, believing I would see Santa flying across the sky. What’s wrong with living in an imaginary world when you’re little?”

There was big drama in her household last week when Kendyl broke one of the rules by accidentally touching her elf’s hat as she offered him a chocolate muffin.

“She was so mortified that she’d broken his magic that she wrote him a letter of apology – and the next morning he’d spelt out the word ’thank you’,” Bell says.

Despite her huge success, family life for Bell has changed very little. They have moved to a bigger house nearer the office, but her husband still teaches children with special needs, and she works hard, spreading the joy of Christmas.

“I think it would be a huge mistake to start thinking I’ve made it,” she says. “If you start thinking like that, you lose who you are.”

One might think she’d tire of Christmas, having lived it all year round for more than a decade, but she’s as fanatical as ever about her elves.

“The story never gets old because I’m so passionate about it,” she says. “We have Christmas trees up all year round in the office and recorded messages from Santa on our voicemail.”

She’s also still devotedly moving her children’s elves each night – although you wouldn’t catch them with jam on their faces, like certain elves on social media, or sliding down the banisters in a sleigh pulled by chocolate reindeer, as per Dotty, the elf belonging to Robbie Williams’s children.

“The elf should match the personality of the family,” she maintains. Which makes me feel slightly less guilty about my children’s rather sedentary visitor. – The Daily Telegraph