The Case of the Missing Elf on the Shelf

So who’s idea was it to create a new tradition for NOW – this crazy season of great expectations –  when we are expected to accomplish a regular day’s work and then deck the halls, dodge the traffic, bake up a storm and – OH! I almost forgot – actually help our families prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ! 

I have a confession to make. Please don’t judge me. And please don’t tell my kids.

Here goes.

I sent our elf dumpster diving 800px-Elf_on_the_Shelf_poses_01last Christmas.

I know. That’s a terrible thing for a mother to do.

But don’t worry – he never suspected a thing. I assure you, the little guy was all game, smiling with those joyful but mischievous little eyes  – all ready to play along in the spirit of his Christmas mission. Without asking any questions, he dove right in with scraps of ribbons and wrappings as I disposed of all evidence of material overreach. No doubt he was expecting a great search party and a celebration some time soon – only they never came.

Like I said – don’t judge.

In my defense, that little red intruder was seriously infringing on our Advent season. I’m sure he meant no harm. But day after day, year after year, he just seemed to suck the air out of Advent and the Christ out of Christmas.

I know I’ll have tons of haters out there. But do you REALLY enjoy your Christmas being absconded by a tiny little elf that requires so much time and energy?! From the moment the kids were introduced to that cheeky little stalker a few years ago  – a well-intentioned and fun-spirited albeit “needy” gift from my mother – I have felt my resentment growing.

Say what you want about Santa. He may have been commercialized, but he does have his roots in sainthood. At least we could – and do – talk with our children about how St. Nicholas was given a special mission by God to spread Christ’s message of love and giving. About how in a special way he helps us to celebrate Christ’s birth.  But the elf? Maybe I just don’t “get” him. But for me he was like an everyday reminder of secularism – IN OUR HOME. I just couldn’t seem to escape him. Call me impulsive and underhanded. But I like to think of it more along the lines of self-preservation.

In addition to having nothing to do with Christ, and in no way enhancing our celebration of Advent or preparing our hearts for Christmas, our elf was pretty darned uncreative with his hiding places. If I were Santa, I would have fired him a long time ago. He often went for days at a time hanging out on a shelf in the middle of the living room like he’d completely forgotten his purpose. He was pretty lazy, all things considered.

And yes, I’ll admit it. My disdain was personal. Rather than spread the joy, our little elf served as a constant reminder of my lack of hospitality. I would pretty much characterize him as nothing more than a noose around my neck for the entire month of December.

Truth be told, I’ve actually been known to completely log out of Pinterest and FB over the holidays just to avoid being reminded of what a dud we welcomed into our home. In other people’s homes little elves were throwing parties, bathing in marshmallows or hosting potato sack races. In our home, we were hosting a couch potato.

I totally get that in order for the Elf on the Shelf to make himself at home, wandering around and getting into all sorts of mischief or just hanging out like one of the guys, there must be some modicum of hospitality from ME. But therein lies the entire problem. Every year at this time it’s like our home gets invaded by an unwelcome guest who is all smiles and modest, and all, “No, really I’m fine, just let me hang out here on the mantle and fulfill my mission” but who, honestly, puts me out on a daily (OK, nightly) basis, IF I remember him at all. And to make matters worse – almost EVERY morning – I’m all, “Darn! I forgot all about that little stinker again last night.” And then the kids spend most of December being disappointed, because they hear about everyone else’s elf adventures while their elf smiles dumbly from the same perch for most of the season. We can’t seem to escape being one-upped. Our next door neighbors are so hospitable they host two of the little buggers!

So that’s my story. Despite that little part about my letting the kids think their elf just ran away, things have been pretty peaceful around here this year. And truth be told, I really didn’t see another way out.

If cornered, I would plead NOT GUILTY. Frankly, I did not ask for this house guest, And there is no way my mother could have imagined that she was setting me up for absolute failure. But seriously? Throwing this little beast of burden on unsuspecting parents during the busiest time of year?

If you haven’t done it, please don’t.

I mean, eleven months out of the year, it’s all we parents can do to get our kids to bed, do some laundry, clean the kitchen, finish a little work, balance the checkbook, plan our meals and get everything ready for all the activities on the coming day’s calendar. Meet any parent on the street, and you will see a sleep-deprived individual. So who’s idea was it to create a new tradition for NOW – this crazy season of great expectations –  when we are expected to accomplish a regular day’s work and then deck the halls, dodge the traffic, bake up a storm and – OH! I almost forgot – actually help our families prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ! 

Call my methods extreme and underhanded. Yes, I’ll admit it. My conscience isn’t quite where I’d like it to be. I did spend a few days quietly watching the kids frantically search through all the Christmas boxes for our elf and listening to their pitiful confessions that perhaps their elf disappeared because they touched him last year and he lost his “magic.”

But after all the initial excitement, I am very pleased to say that out-of-sight-out-of-mind has been rather effective and we have actually enjoyed a very peaceful Advent season with no elf on our shelf.

We’ve been lighting the Advent candles and pulling out our Jesse tree ornaments. We are reading Christmas stories. And to top it off, there is no discussion about where the elf is or why he hasn’t moved or whether Santa doesn’t like our family because our elf doesn’t play like all the other elves. Even better, there is no guilt-ridden Mommy every single morning. I’d even venture to say it’s been fairly joyful here.

Except for the little part about my actually being a malicious source of sadness for my kids. In that regard, I’ve been doing a little thinking. Is it possible that I can have my cake and eat it too? In the interest of “honesty”, I think I’ve come up with a solution to clear my conscience and bring resolution for the little ones. I read an article the other day about a mother who also must have had enough (You are not alone!). Only SHE had the foresight to ask Santa to write a letter to her children, rather than throwing her elf out on the street, or allowing  him to disappear without a trace. Perhaps Santa will find our elf for me and allow him to be a Christmas toy instead of a spy. We’ll see…maybe with Santa’s help, we can all win and there will be happy closure for my kids in the Case of the Missing Elf on the Shelf.



Painting a Thousand Words of Grace – An Advent Lesson

Expectancy of holy heart, in quiet moments set apart,
makes room for Him who came for all as tiny babe in manger stall.

by Paula Zwenger

Quantity does not equal quality. We were several years into family life before proof of this truth presented itself on our doorstep by way of participation in a children’s marigold_garden_pictures_and_rhymes_1910_14566514398Christmas pageant.

Too much of a good thing?

As a young family, opportunities abounded for holiday related preparation. Many were offered through our parish community (Advent family night, Posada, caroling, etc.), but some were part of school or extracurricular commitments. We attended everything.

Before long, our combined activities had us spending more time at practices, rehearsals and presentations than we were spending at home. We knew Christmas was coming, but we were busy, for goodness sake, with all these wonderful activities in which we’d committed to take part.

Captured for Posterity

One year, after dress rehearsal, someone captured a candid shot of my then five year old daughter. She is sitting on the altar step in her angel costume, wings akimbo, halo askew, chin firmly cupped in hands, legs arranged in less than ladylike fashion, appearing weary to the bone.

Likely I was busy somewhere intent on other details…too busy to notice the toll our hectic Advent activity schedule was taking on her.

I’ve pondered this shot annually for over twenty eight years as an examination as Advent begins. It helps answer the questions of how best to spend time in efforts to welcome Christ.

Will the beauty of a rich liturgical heritage be embraced or will we squander the grace of the season on weariness of a worldly kind? Will contemplation, meditation, and wonder be paramount or will a hectic schedule of activities bring our family to the brink of exhaustion?

I keep this precious reminder packed away with our Advent decorations. It finds prominent display space with wreath, candles, and empty crèche, from the first day of each new liturgical year, as a reminder to keep Advent well.

Symbols and signs of faith and family provide valuable encouragement as we enter again into a new liturgical year.  Mementos from seasons past provide a timely reminder that we don’t have to chase after the ‘right’ activities to experience God. He is here, waiting patiently, for us to welcome Him into our hearts and lives.

We find Him in music and pageants, surely; but also through quiet daily prayers at home and sacrifices offered in secret, softening our hearts to become anew His manger bed.


Waiting for Jesus like Mary

Expectancy of holy heart, in quiet moments set apart,
makes room for Him who came for all as tiny babe in manger stall.

In Advent days of waiting well we visit stories meant to tell
of God incarnate. Blend our gaze to Love beyond the present days.

No tinseled wrap could well adorn the gift received on Christmas morn;
our swaddled Savior, Mary’s face; a tableau of indwelling grace.

We pause, and offer daily tasks designed to help in what He asks:
to love Him first with all we are, then love each neighbor near or far.

Each waited day, in blest delight, we rush to serve with Mary’s sight;
to honor and uphold His will, remembering His coming, still.

From first to last, our Advent plan, we pray for heart of every man.
No rush to fall, no wearied way. Come quickly Lord, we pray. We pray.


Paula Zwenger
is a wife, mother, and grandmother who, upon finding herself an empty nester, tried on the hat of rhyme loving writer. It fit very well. Her joy manifests completely while taking the ups and downs of life and wrangling them into poetry. She also has a passion for creating rhymed treasure hunts with a Catholic flare to celebrate the faith and learn a thing or two along the way. You can find her musings at

The Advent that almost Wasn’t.

Despite our best intentions, by their very force the material obligations of the Christmas season can push the more spiritual Advent activities aside.

Most of us aspire to lofty ideals during Advent:

“O, Lord, I anxiously await your coming and offer all that I am and all that I do for love of You, looking forward with all my heart to uniting myself to You in the celebration of your Incarnation.”advent-wreath

But often we fall somewhere between the ideal and the overwrought, overstressed, if not practical sentiment:

“Lord, could you just hurry up and come already, so we can get back to a regular routine?!”

And yet, who can blame us? Many of us already feel like we’re drowning, barely afloat amidst the trials, tribulations and regulations of every-day family life – getting little Joey to piano, Susie to violin, Harvard to debate practice and – in our case – homeschooling from morning till night, along with meal planning, grocery shopping, housekeeping and more. Then – every year around this time – here comes a great millstone of joy around our necks – otherwise known as Christmas lights strung from here to high heaven, perfectly appointed trees and wall to wall decor, shopping, hospitality, parties, family pictures, cards and letters, never-ending trips to the post office, planning, budgeting, charitable giving, baking and traveling. (Sometimes don’t you just want to curl up in your empty manger and hide from all the demands of boxes, bows and bounty until it’s all over?)

And after all the material traditions are said and done, we’re supposed to do what? Advent wreath? Candles? Special attention to Sacraments? Added Prayer? Sacrifice?

Sadly, despite our best intentions, by the inherent force of their nature,  the material obligations of the season often push the more spiritual Advent activities aside. To the point where we look back around Gaudete Sunday and realize that all those candles and Jesse tree ornaments, prayers, extra Masses, rosaries and reflections have been lost along the road of good intentions, somehow caught up and blown away in the wind before we even realized they were gone.

At least that’s what happened to our family this year.  And from the looks of all the beautiful houses and the over-the-top parties and show-stopping hospitality – where every dessert is perfection and the air is filled with the scent of pine needles and cranberries – I’m probably not the only one.

It seems that Advent has ceased to be about, well, ADVENT. Yes, it’s still about getting ready for Christmas.But it’s not about getting ready for Christmas.  There is no time of year when the contrast between how we look on the outside and how prepared we are on the inside can feel more stark. Sometimes, with all the joy surrounding the exterior, the lack of attention I’ve paid to my interior life is that much more highlighted for me. I begin to wonder if I’m not one of those “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead man’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27-28). Maybe it’s not that bad; but often it comes pretty close.

This is particularly the time when we should shed all the excess and train our eyes on heaven. On the things that really matter. Instead, every year the celebrations get earlier and earlier; the bar gets higher and higher; the obligations pile on and on.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Unlike Lent, which lends itself to reflection and sacrifice, coming as it does before Spring  and at the end of the long, drawn out quiet of winter, Advent is often glossed over by all the demands of the season.

What is the solution? And when I say “solution” I mean “practical solution.” Because chances are, all the obligations are not going to go away. Sure, we can disband everything that is not necessary; but for most of us, many of these traditions are here to stay. Try as we might, we’re still going to have decorations, get-togethers with extended family and friends, family pictures, Christmas cards, shopping and the like.

Yet, Christ is still calling. Whether we listen or not.

In our home, we have always had two Advent traditions. Every morning we read the stories of salvation history and place our special Jesse Tree ornaments on the Tree. Every evening we light a candle on the Advent wreath and read from one of Arnold Ytreeide’s Advent books.

But not this year.

Somehow what we used to think were crazy Christmas schedules for us as a family have multiplied into several crazy Christmas schedules – one for the family, and separate ones for each of our three teens, who all have their own Christmas obligations, whether through school, work, youth groups, or other affiliation. With everyone running around  we’ve not been able to schedule “family time” for much of anything. In fact, this year I hadn’t even found our Jesse Tree ornaments until a few days ago. And that was only because I’d had a huge awakening.

On Gaudete Sunday, it occurred to me that Advent is half over. I was shocked to realize that through the first two weeks of Advent, we had yet to light a single candle. My youngest children have had no reference to Advent other than the pink and purple candles sitting front and center in Church,  or the words we speak at prayer time or during open discussions around the table. Other than random moments, there has been no effort –  organized anyway – to help them prepare their hearts and minds for Christ.

It actually hit me that perhaps we should just give it up this year. Why not just get ready for Christmas and give Advent another try next year? I mean, what else can we do when the demands of the world won’t STOP?

But something about that idea just didn’t feel right. After all, what is all this “stuff” for, anyway? If we give up, aren’t we just releasing the most important if least demanding Person of the season? The One quietly waiting to gain our attention? Can I actually look myself in the mirror if my solution to the busyness of the season is just to put away the Advent candles and save my prayers for less demanding times?

No, I can’t.

So I looked at the calendar. Realizing we still had ten days left, tonight, we took action.

My husband pulled out the wreath and the kids lit the candles. One teen was at work; another was somewhere studying for a test. But four kids sat around the table and gazed at the three candles flickering before them.

Tonight, we spent time reflecting on the story of salvation history. We talked about the creation and the fall; We read about how Christ represents the Second Adam. How Mary is the new Eve. In brief passages, we read about God’s covenant with Noah; with Abraham. We placed our Jesse tree ornaments on the Christmas tree. Not the second tree we normally put in the classroom, but the family tree. And we didn’t read the Advent book we normally read; we focused on the story of salvation. In other words, we changed things up a bit in the interest of time. But that’s OK.

We gathered. And we read together. And those teens who weren’t around? They noticed the Advent wreath on the table when they returned. They may not have been a part of the conversation, but they remained part of the tradition. The reminder brought back all the years they had sat around the Advent wreath. They noticed.

For the next ten days, our family may not STOP. But we are going to PAUSE. If not twice a day, at least once. We’ve found the wreath; we’ve found the ornaments. We’ve made time for the sacrament of Confession. We are moving forward.

Our Advent may be brief. It may not be perfect. It may be missing some piece that would be “just the thing.” But it will be Advent nonetheless.

It will be a PAUSE.

And that PAUSE will matter.

Because that PAUSE will allow us to put all the other “stuff” into perspective. Rather than wait for the “perfect” opportunity to pull out the Advent wreath or the Jesse tree ornaments, we will schedule time each day – the same time. No matter that one family member is at work or another out with friends. Anyone home will be invited to participate. But if we wait for everyone to be ready, we’ll never be ready. If we wait for all the stars to align and the the time to be right, they will never be right.

We’ve lit our candles. And we plan to keep lighting them. Until the moment comes when we get to meet the bridegroom (Matt. 25:1).

The Advent that almost wasn’t…is here.



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