I sat in the living room near the Christmas tree, back when I was a young. I thought of Santa Claus knowing whether I was naughty or nice. I never received coal in my stocking, but I knew I should have. Therefore, I thought well of Santa, because he overlooked my naughtiness, so it must be OK—but I still knew better. At the time I knew nothing about sin or the gospel.

Christmas has become the classic exemplar of the covenant of works. A cartoon recently showed a little girl standing before Santa Claus asking, “Isn’t there something in between naughty and nice?” The Elf on the Shelf, of recent commercial vintage, has become Santa’s spy, designed to get children to obey their parents. Christ may still be in the word Christmas, but Santa or the Elf have eclipsed him.

Wikipedia describes the Elf’s origin:

The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a 2005 American picture book for children, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. The book tells a Christmas-themed story, written in rhyme, that explains how Santa Claus knows who is naughty and nice. It describes elves visiting children from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, after which they return to the North Pole until the next holiday season.[1]

The bestselling Elf is not without his critics. Kate Tuttle in her Atlantic article “You’re a Creepy One, Elf on the Shelf” calls this “a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition,” whose purpose is “to spy on kids.” She argues that one should not “bully [one’s] child into thinking that good behavior equals gifts.”[2]

David Kyle Johnston in Psychology Today calls it a “dangerous parental crutch,” commensurate with what he terms the “Santa lie.” Children are taught that “The elf is actually alive and moves around when you're not looking. He’s watching you and you never know where he will turn up next. And if he sees you doing something wrong he reports directly back to Santa.”[3] Johnston is most concerned about the perception by children that if there is no Santa or Elf, it will undermine trust in parents and raise doubts about what they teach about God.

Remember the lyrics to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town, gather ’round,

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

This is not good news for sinners, especially little ones.

More than this, Santa and the Elf undermine two important attributes of God: his omniscience and his mercy. The Devil will do everything in his power to undermine the sovereign holiness of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ, the free and sovereign grace that saves us from sin and death. He uses what is apparently good to do so. That guilt will make kids be nice and kind. It leaves them with hopeless hypocrisy.

Our God is omniscient, Santa is a fictional imitation: “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” (Ps. 94:9). “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). The guilt this brings is what makes the gospel so glorious. In the incarnation we celebrate

the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:13–14)

We perform good works, not out of guilt, but as a response to the forgiveness of God based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ and his guilt defeating sacrifice. What a message for the Christmas season! The cross alone engenders true kindness and giving. This is the covenant of grace.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:8–11)

While I am not a fan of the Elf, neither am I a fan of the Grinch. Each Christian has the liberty to celebrate Christmas or not. The way I have found most compatible with my Christianity is to enjoy the festivity, during the cold and dark season, with family and friends. I seek to make opportunities to discuss, and for me as a minister, to preach about the incarnation. I also read “The Night before Christmas,” not as the truth, but as a delightful poem. The fictional gift giver is not Santa Clause, but St. Nicholas. He was the Greek bishop of Myra (now Turkey), who obeyed Jesus’s words to “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. This is the fruit of the cross, the cross of Christ instead of the Elf on the Shelf.


[1] Wikipedia’s “The Elf on the Shelf” entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elf_on_the_Shelf, accessed November 19, 2023.

[2] Cited in “The Elf on the Shelf,” Wikipedia.

[3] David Kyle Johnston, “Let's Bench the Elf on the Shelf,” Psychology Today (December 19, 2012).

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: December 2023

Remembering G. I. Williamson

Also in this issue

G. I. Williamson: Encounters with the Life of a Faithful Servant of God

G. I. Williamson’s Farewell Sermon

The Case for the Majority Greek New Testament Text

The Case for the Eclectic Greek New Testament Text

Theological Daylighting: Retrieving J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Trumpeter of God: Fulfill Your Office,[1] Chapter 9

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 10: Be a Presbyter

Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto

An Ode of the Birth of Our Saviour

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