Jordan Peterson talks about Santa Claus as a sort of game played between parents and their children.1 Jonathan Pageau goes a step further, stating that “obviously, Santa Claus exists.”2 Of course, in a certain way these are all true, but let me go even one more step: an Elf on the Shelf is real, too. As my own children approach the age when they begin to question their beliefs in the existence of Santa and our Elf on the Shelf, I wonder how each of these traditions can help us in the great challenge of belief in our age?
The Elf on the Shelf is a pretty new phenomenon, based on a book and doll that came out in 2005, where the elf essentially spies on children in the home, much like Santa, judging whether children are naughty or nice.3 The basic rule is that the elf cannot be touched by children, since it will sap him of his magic. Then, during the night, while all are sleeping, he or she will get up to some type of mischief around the home. While it isn’t without its critics, it seems that the judgment or spying aspect of the elf is as commonly focused upon as that of Santa Claus.4 Columnists need to write about something, but the reality in our own home, let alone in the homes of friends or even in my children’s classrooms throughout the years, I’ve never known this judgment or spying aspect to be played up.
Our elf (named Rudolph), gets up to some hijinks during the night, likes to eat sweets, and sometimes leaves little treats, notes or surprises for our children. But these details aside, exploring how bringing an Elf on the Shelf to life, or Santa Claus for that matter, can help us to better understand by analogy what it means to give body to spiritual beings. Further still, it is hoped that as Christians, as disciples of Christ, this examination can also help to clarify, even if only obliquely, what belief in His spirit demands of us.
Identity is a tricky animal to pin down. Like a body, where my own identity begins and ends is not as clear as it might initially appear. My identity is a composite of the roles that I play out in my life, not the least of which is that of father, husband, son, friend, teacher (my job), and ideally, as a Christian, imitating Christ to the best of my ability — imitating Him who should be at the top of the hierarchy of who I am and how I identify myself. The lowest of these roles are the easiest to embody and see the fruits and faults of in daily life, and can show us how various aspects of identity manifest themselves in the world.
Jonathan Pageau uses the example of Joe acting as Santa Claus, but we could just as easily use the example of a police officer.5 When we meet a police officer, is he Bob down the street who is divorced and a borderline alcoholic, or a representative of the law and order of the State? While we can easily say that he is both, he is clearly more in the latter than the former camp, particularly if I am breaking a law! This is the same thing for all of us in the roles that we play, whether that be in our job or in embodying the role of Santa Claus or an Elf on the Shelf. Who we are in these roles we play are not necessarily who we are while we play others. Consider that the locker room talk in a men’s hockey league is not the same way these same men speak with their children. And this is to be expected. It’s normal behaviour. The point where the roles we play become fragmented and problematic for us is when they are not nested within cumulatively higher-valued levels of identity.
When I act in persona Elfis, it isn’t exactly me acting as a father or as any other role that I play in my life. The role of father, for example, doesn’t really entail making a mess around the house, nibbling on his kids’ Halloween candy in the night or leaving little candies out for his kids to eat at breakfast time. But an elf would and does do these things. So when I take these actions, I am embodying the spirit of an Elf on the Shelf. You might even say that I am, as the popular saying goes: “getting into the spirit.” While my body is clearly the active agent animating this elf from night to night, it isn’t so clear that it’s precisely “me” that is doing these things.
Of course, most would answer that it is clearly me and leave it at that, and on the one hand this is true. But if we stop here, we simplify things and quite frankly make it really hard to understand many aspects of our faith. When I embody a role in my life, is it not true that it can often take me beyond the self that I am and toward a new one? When I make sacrifices for my wife to try to lessen the load she has to carry, I play out my role as husband and push myself beyond who I was before I was married. In this new responsibility, I am not the same man that I was before getting married, let alone who I was before having children. This ability to step outside the confines of the current roles we inhabit seems to point toward a sort of “striving and straining forward toward a meaning beyond meaning.”6 It points toward a desire and ability to push to become more than we are.
If we want to know what we value, what we worship, we should look to what we sacrifice. Father Mike Schmitz has already identified sacrifice as the heart of worship, so this isn’t a new observation, but these aforementioned roles are all small ways in which we can practice a denial of self toward higher aims.7 How strange is it, though, that through the purposeful giving up of something in favour of something else can so often lead toward a greater sense of understanding, of meaning and identity? That this happens precisely when we step outside the boundaries of the self, that the negation of self reveals the self, is a hard paradox to square unless we come to recognize just how much our identities are forged through others and through the sacrifices we make, which are directed toward what we worship and the spirits we animate.
This, then, helps to clarify how my identity as a hierarchy of roles I play exists outside of me. My identity isn’t just self-created from within in an ad hoc sort of way. Nor, however, are these roles the whole of who I am in a literal sense, but rather they are a part of me and extensions of my being insofar as I embody them; that is, insofar as I give my body to them and act them out in the world. While love has been described as willing the good of the other, it might also be said that love is to sacrifice for another.8 This is as true of the reality of my life as a teacher, husband, son or father, as it is in my providing body for Santa or an Elf on the Shelf to exist; or of the reality of my being a member of the Body of Christ.
As Christians, we are called to embody Christ in a similar way parents embody Santa and their Elf on the Shelf during the Christmas season. But in trying to be in Christ, unlike living out the life of an elf or Santa, we don’t consume candy or eat cookies — the misplaced worship of lesser gods will rot your teeth! Rather, we nourish both body and soul with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. We reorient our wayward souls, pilgrims that we are in a strange land, through the sacrament of Reconciliation.9 In this, we try to realign ourselves to imitate Christ by identifying the weak points in ourselves and all the ways in which we do not measure up to His image, created as we are, in that same image and likeness (Gen. 1:26).
Embodying an Elf on the Shelf isn’t really that hard. Check out some Instagram pages for some ideas and lose a bit of sleep for a month to set things up after the kids are asleep, and presto — you bring an elf to life! Perhaps easier still, is to bring Santa to life, since it’s over an arguably shorter timeline, but to live the life of Christ? It isn’t for a spell or a season, but the goal is to let it rule over the whole of your life. He wants all of you, not just a room in the house of your soul, not just an hour a week.10 Be not deceived, this is the call of Christendom: the demand of the Good News of the Gospel is a demand for all of you.
In this effort, let us not lose heart, for even the saints fail. St. Paul says that “I do not do what I want, but find myself doing what I don’t want” (cf. Rom. 7:15). The embodiment and worship of other things, despite our best intentions, are easy by comparison to a life in Christ. This is why we have the saints and the Law to help guide us in avoiding the dangers of distraction and sloth. This is why we have the spiritual tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is also such a blessing in turn to have very focused points throughout the liturgical season of the Church to help us properly orient our attention on the Light and Life of the world.
Now, an obvious objection to be raised about giving body to God or gods is its seemingly arbitrary nature. It can seem that if we can give body to any spiritual being, such as Santa or an Elf on the Shelf, then how is God any different? Couldn’t He just be a creation of our own design? A sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy? This seems in large part to be a debate over emergence versus emanation, a debate over how things come to exist.11 Do ideas, actions or beings come to exist as trickling down from above or from a bubbling up from below? Jonathan Pageau has done a great job in addressing this very question of whether things come to exist through emanation or emergence, and the answer is “yes” to both.
The God who reveals Himself to humanity is the same God that humanity avails itself to. It’s call and response, invitation and encounter. Now, as to which spirits we allow to make up our identities, the spiritual tool used to measure it is called discernment.12 It’s not an easy thing to gauge when we can hardly trust ourselves and our own motivations, but this is why we have the Church and spiritual direction to guide us along this path.13 They are pillars to help ensure that we are following the will of God rather than our own idiosyncratic desires or perhaps better stated, being led astray by those demons, powers and principalities that St. Paul warns of (cf. Eph. 6:12).
All gods exist, but the question is: which one(s) do you worship? Which do you embody? It’s a question of faith and works all over again. How are we saved — through the grace of God alone or through our work here on earth? Answer: yes. This debate is at least as old as St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (cf. 3:6–18), wherein he touches upon this same issue, stating that we are saved through the promise of faith made through Abraham. And like Abraham, who received the grace of God before acting upon that faith and the demands of God’s promise to make of him the father of many nations, the fulfillment of that covenant still required action on his part to bring it to completion (see Gen. 17). He still had to go out into the wilderness, and like Abraham, we do the same today, as we remain pilgrims in a strange land.14
Of course, this is easier said than done. That’s why things like Santa and an Elf on the Shelf are useful tools, being both simple and concrete, to help us understand what it means to give body to something. These lesser gods and spirits can serve to point the way to the One True God and our identity as found in Christ. So, may we don the armour of the disciple and get to work (cf. Eph. 6:10–18). There is a battle waging all around us, there are all sorts of gods competing for our attention. We are in the midst of a spiritual warfare and each of us needs to constantly choose which side we are on.
So, yes, obviously Santa Claus exists, just like an Elf on the Shelf does, too, or demons of the passions of greed, lust and gluttony for that matter, if we give them purchase. But, then again, so too does Christ exist in our lives, if we give our bodies over to Him. And this is the hinge point of our faith, of our worship and of our attention: to whom are these lesser gods and spirits in the service of? Are the various roles we play in our lives nested within, and aimed toward, our highest identity as found in Christ? Or more pointedly, are we willing and brave and bold enough to let Him in and to let Him reign over all aspects of our lives?15
1. Think It Through, “Jordan Peterson on Santa Claus and lying to children,” YouTube, August 4, 2022.
2. Jonathan Pageau, “Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy Exist,” YouTube, July 24, 2018. See also idem, “The Problem with Monotheism | Santa and The Tooth Fairy Exist pt.2,” YouTube, August 6, 2018.
3. See The Elf on the Shelf website.
4. “The Elf on the Shelf – Criticism,” Wikipedia, December 25, 2022.
5. Pageau, “Santa Claus,” at 6:56.
6. Robert J. Nash, Spirituality, Ethics, Religion and Teaching: A Professor’s Journey (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2002) p. 18.
7. FOCUS Catholic, “Fr. Mike Schmitz: "Pray The Mass Like Never Before" | SEEK2019,” YouTube, January 18, 2019, at 18:05.
8. Catholic Church, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Double Day, 1995), at No. 1766.
9. Vatican Council II, Lumen gentium 7 (Vatican, 1964).
10. See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone, 1996), pp. 175–76 (link to relevant text). See also Bishop Robert Barron and Brandon Vogt, Word on Fire podcast, “WOF 364: Joy is the Gigantic Secret of Christians w/ Father Mike Schmitz,” December 22, 2022, at 18:05.
11. Call it emergence/emanation, bottom-up/top-down, or push/pull, they are all terms being used to describe how identities or things come to exist. Using the language of push/pull, the discussion between John Vervaeke and Jonathan Pageau at the Consciousness and Conscience Conference in Thunder Bay, Ontario is a good one: Consciousness & Conscience, “Dr. John Vervaeke and Jonathan Pageau in Dialectic,” YouTube, October 10, 2022.
12. John MacArthur, “What Is Discernment? Bible Meaning and Its Importance Today,” Christianity.com, October 26, 2023.
13. Fr. John Valadez, Ek Nekron podcast, “Survival Course For Orthodox Christians: No. 8, The Age of No Reason,” December 23, 2020, at 24:40.
14. Again, Lumen gentium 7.
15. Bishop Robert Barron, “Is Jesus the King of Your Life? — Bishop Barron’s Sunday Sermon,” YouTube, November 21, 2021.