Fred had to pause from his adventures last December and grieve the loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Although Kevin Helms’ children are older now — Sydney is 13 and Jacob is 11 — he says they still look forward to their annual holiday tradition with “Fred.”
Fred is one of Santa’s many helpers, known as an Elf on the Shelf. He shows up at the Helms’ Gate City, Va., home shortly after Thanksgiving and hangs around, keeping an eye on things, until Christmas.
The Elf on the Shelf, which is wildly popular with both parents and children of all ages, is the brain child of Carol Aebersold, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts. Aebersold is mother to Bell and Pitts, who are twins.
According to the Elf on the Shelf website, these elves are special scout elves sent from the North Pole to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists. When a family adopts an elf and gives it a name, the elf receives its Christmas magic and can fly to the North Pole each night to tell Santa Claus about all of the day's adventures. Each morning, the elf returns to its family and perches in a different place to watch the fun as the children wake up and race around the house looking for their elf.
There are two simple rules that every child knows when it comes to having an elf. First, an elf cannot be touched. Christmas magic is very fragile and, if an elf is touched, it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake. An elf's job is to watch and listen. Elves typically appear in their families’ homes at the beginning of the holiday season. On Christmas Eve, the elves return to the North Pole with Santa Claus — until next year. Most families’ elves will start showing up this weekend. Helms said the fun his family has had with Fred every year has just continued to evolve. “We do different and wacky things with him every year,” he said. “The kids get a kick out of it. They crack up every day when they get up and see what he’s doing. It started out with him just hiding in a different spot here and there. But then I decided to put some action into it.”
And Fred definitely saw some action last year. He went to a concert and did some stage diving; he sang karaoke one day; went to a beach party with some friends; went monster trucking; prepared for doomsday on Dec. 21 as he looked over his Mayan calendar and even had a marshmallow snowball fight with Virginia Tech’s mascot, the Hokie Bird.
“When it gets close time for Fred to show up, I start thinking of things around the house that I could use for props and just different themes,” Helms said. “I pay attention to the headlines and what people are talking about and thinking about.”
Helms said he uses a lot of toys his children no longer play with for Fred’s activities.
“I do a different scenario with him everyday, starting Dec. 1. I just look through their toys and other stuff at the house and try to come up with something different every day. I do all of this after they go to bed. I don’t want them to know what’s up until the next day when they get up,” he said. “When they get up, they look through the house, even at 13 and 11, before school and see if they can find him. They love it.”
One of Fred’s most memorable scenes from last Christmas season was when he paid tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn. On top of an old school desk, Fred was found kneeling, as if in prayer, in the center of 20 red apples. These apples were formed into the shape of a heart, with six gold apples lined up above them. The 20 red apples represented the children while the six gold ones represented the teachers who were all killed on Dec. 14, 2012 in one of the worst school shootings in our country’s history.
“The Sandy Hook one was the one I really treasured. The others were just fun things. But this one makes you stop and think about how precious life is,” Helms said.
Helms posted all of his photos of Fred’s different scenes on his Facebook page and soon Fred had a faithful following.
“I got a lot of ‘laugh out loud’ comments,” he said. “People were excited to see what he was going to do next. I had people message me or email me and ask, ‘What’s he going to do tomorrow?’ But I wouldn’t give it away. I even had people say they were doing their own elf thing, but put theirs to the side to see what Fred was doing. We had a lot of laughs and positive reactions.”
Helms isn’t the only parent thinking about what his Elf on the Shelf might get into this holiday season. Parents everywhere are talking about their own elves, and, most of them will admit, they are as excited — if not more so — as their own children about seeing their elves come back in just a few days.
Candace Bennett, who lives in Colonial Heights, has done Elf on the Shelf for three years now. Her two sons, Conner, who’s almost 5, and 2-year-old Kellan, are already asking about “Otis.” They know it’s about time for him to show up.
“When I first learned about Elf on the Shelf, we just kind of took it and ran with it. I’ve found a lot of different ideas on Pinterest. I try not to do the same thing twice,” she said.
Last year, Bennett said her family woke up to find that Otis, who is quite the active and mischievous little fellow, had wrapped their toilet in wrapping paper and placed a bow on it as a present. He also toilet-papered the whole house and replaced the Christmas stockings with socks and underwear. They caught him repelling down a wall and, one morning, even found him going down a zipline in the hallway.
“I have more fun with Otis than I think the kids do,” Bennett, said, laughing.
Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas is important to Bennett, and she said she uses Otis to help her with that, too.
“He usually leaves a couple of biblical gifts — a book or an ornament or something,” she said.
The good thing about Elf on the Shelf, Bennett says, is you can go as big or as small as you want.
“You can go all out with it, or, if you forget or you’re too tired, you can just put him up on the shelf and have them find him there. But I love seeing the kids’ faces,” she said.
Kim Cassell is a second-grade teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Kingsport and has a classroom elf. Last year was the first time she participated in Elf on the Shelf.
“It was so fun to watch my students come in every single morning and try to be the first one there to find ‘C.C’ [short for Candy Cane]. I even had parents who would email me or call me and say their child got up really early that morning because they wanted to be the first one in the classroom to try and find him first,” Cassell said. “He would end up in lots of different places and even I ended up having to go in early some mornings and try to find the perfect place for him. It was definitely fun for me, too. But, the best part of it was just seeing their faces when they would come in. Sometimes I would hear one of them say, ‘You’d better be quiet because C.C.’s watching!’ I thought, ‘Hey, let’s just do this all year round!’”
Cassell, who can’t wait to bring him out this year, says the classroom elf was something that each student could participate in in their own way.
“They would use their imaginations in how they saw him and how he got back to the North Pole and how he got back to us the next day,” she said.
Norton, Va., mom Dorie Stidham, jokes that she uses “Ernie” as a bribe to get good behavior out of her two boys, 6-year-old Carter and 3-year-old Cam.
“With two boys you have to do whatever works,” Stidham said, laughing.
Like other Elf on the Shelves, Ernie can be mischievous.
“He toilet papered the Christmas tree. He wrapped the refrigerator with wrapping paper,” she said.
Ernie also unwrapped a small present one night.
“We found him holding up a sign that said, ‘Tell Mom this is bad,’” Stidham said.
And, like all the other parents, Stidham said Ernie’s antics become fun for her and her husband, too.
“We have so much fun just trying to think of new things to do every night and different positions to put him in. But now I’m afraid I’ve used up all my good ideas. I don’t know what I’m going to do this year to try to top it,” she said.
Because Christi Campbell’s family’s elf, Elfie, got into so much trouble last year, a senior elf named Poppy had to be sent down from the North Pole to keep an eye on Elfie.
“We really got crazy last year! We were having so much fun with Elfie that we brought Poppy in. Poppy looks different from Elfie. He’s got a long gray beard and he’s smaller and fatter so he doesn’t look like the Elf on the Shelf. Poppy only stays for a couple of days after Elfie has acted up,” Campbell said.
Elfie has been caught making messes in the kitchen with sugar. He’s played with the cat and strung yarn all over the house.
Even though Elfie has been a big part of the Campbell holiday tradition for four years now, Campbell admits that sometimes after she goes to bed she remembers that Elfie hasn’t moved. She knows her 8-year-old daughter Ellie, will be so disappointed to wake up and find Elfie in the same spot he was the day before.
“I wake my husband and up and say, ‘Did you move him?!’ And he can always come up with some crazy ideas,” she said. “Ellie looks forward to seeing what kind of trouble Elfie will get into. We have a new house this year [in Kingsport] and all new surroundings for Elfie, so it’s hard to tell what kind of trouble he will get into.”