The empire the Elf built
Posted November 20, 2018 3:54 p.m. EST
ATLANTA -- Inside an Atlanta high-rise office building, an elevator opens up to "the North Pole."
It's not only what employees call the local headquarters of Elf on the Shelf, but it's the place that seems to live and breathe Christmas -- and stay busy developing new products for the annual holiday shopping season.
A tall Christmas tree with shiny ornaments and silver ribbons remains in the lobby -- another one in large office space -- all year long. Elves on the Shelf are everywhere -- hanging out on fluffy snow, decked out in holiday garb; some tote candy canes, others look like they are about to make Christmas cookies.
There's the wildly popular scout elf, but that's the beginning of this enterprise with ambitious goals.
"For the longest time, we focused on one goal -- and that goal was our Elf on the Shelf," said Chanda Bell, a former teacher, and one of the creators of the Elf on the Shelf. "Our new vision is to own Santa's North Pole."
It's a bold statement, but maybe this little scout elf is already on its way to owning some of our most cherished Christmas traditions?
Perhaps you already know the back story. In 2004, Bell and her mom, Carol Aebersold, wrote "The Elf on the Shelf" over a cup of tea. The story, based on Scandinavian tradition, features a scout elf from the North Pole sent by Santa to monitor a child's behavior. The scout elf then reports nightly to Santa on who's been naughty and nice.
"The Elf on the Shelf" -- rooted in a family tradition going back to the 1970s -- has sold a whopping 13 million books (and elves) since its 2005 release. They are sold at more than 15,000 stores across the country.
For the seventh consecutive year, the Elf on the Shelf balloon will soar above the crowds as part of Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. Joining the balloon this year will be a float featuring the Elf Pets reindeer and Saint Bernard pups along with two scout elf mascots. (The parade will air from 9 a.m. EST to noon Thursday on NBC.)
Many families adore the rosy-cheeked, grinning elf and have happily made the elf part of their annual holiday traditions. And some of these elves are funny and creative, even adventurous -- arriving in the morning with stories, and surprises. (They seem to take on the personalities of their families.) Some, however, think the elf is overly commercial and overly watchful with its ever-present stare and watching a child's every move and reporting it back to Santa.
Over the years, the company has remained busy building its brand. The company has added a line of companion toys known as "Elf Pets." And now Santa has animal helpers -- the Saint Bernard Elf Pet pups, and their job, according to the creators, is to "encourage children to engage in acts of kindness to generate cheer to help Santa." They gather that cheer in the barrels around their necks, and then transport it back north.
Also this year, there's a new animated movie, "Elf Pets: Santa's St. Bernards Save Christmas!" It will air on TBS and the Cartoon Network. (See box for details.)
The movie tells the story about how Santa discovers there's not enough Christmas spirit, but thankfully, scout elves, Saint Bernard pups and a bighearted family work together to help others to restore Christmas spirit. A total of 64 artists worked on the animated film, including nine based in-house in Atlanta.
Bell, who is co-CEO of Creatively Classic Activities and Books, which is the parent company of Elf on the Shelf and other products, wrote the script for the movie. She was inspired by reading an old news article about a Saint Bernard rescue dog named Barry who reportedly saved the lives of 40 people as a rescue dog in the snowy Alps. Bell traveled to Switzerland and visited a museum dedicated to the Saint Bernard.
"Something about this struck my heart and the connections between the Saint Bernard and Saint Nicholas. They are both generous, warm, kind, caring," she said.
Bell, along with her twin sister, and their mother, certainly had a vision for their Elf on the Shelf.
One of their beloved Christmas traditions revolved around the family's little elf. Every morning, beginning on Dec. 1, Santa sent an elf to the family home in Cobb County, near Atlanta. The elf reported to Santa at night, and then landed in different spots in the house by morning. Bell and her sister and their younger brother jumped out of bed, and enthusiastically searched the house for the elf making nightly trips to see Santa at the North Pole. They named their scout elf "Fisbee."
Bell said she wanted "to share our little tradition."
But at first, success was no given. Getting a booth at Mistletoe Market, the Junior League of Cobb-Marietta's annual holiday shopping event, in 2005 wasn't easy. But the selling of all 500 available copies showed the potential. Members of the family were tapped out after selling a house and borrowing on credit cards to publish the book on their own after rejections from publishing houses.
There were also challenges getting into stores, including boutique shops. But they got some into those stores, and customers started clamoring for their very own Elf on the Shelf. And well, you could say, the rest is history.
During a recent interview, Bell acknowledged she is aware of the harsh critics out there of Elf on the Shelf, who can sometimes use harsh language to criticize the scout elf.
"It makes me sad," Bell said quietly. "A lot of people who have opinions about our brand have not read the book. ... Any good tradition is what you make it."
As for Bell, mother to children who are 17 and 12, she said her family's Elf on the Shelf is "sedentary."
Meanwhile, Bell said she looks forward to producing several more animated movies that will take viewers to the North Pole.
"The North Pole is easy for me," said Bell, who wrote the script for the movie. "I can get in the zone and it's as if I see the North Pole."
"Elf Pets: Santa's St. Bernards Save Christmas!"
6:30 p.m. EST Dec. 3 on the Cartoon Network
7 p.m. Dec. 9 on TBS Story Filed By Cox Newspapers
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