The Flying-off-the-Shelf Elf

Photo: From left: The Elf on the Shelf founders Christa Pitts, Carol Aebersold, Chanda Bell. The mother-and-daughters team have created an elfin empire with books, animated movies and even a music video. Aebersold is a Florida resident.

By RANDAL C. HILL

Carol Aebersold was feeling really low. Her twin daughters and son had grown up and moved out, and she had fallen victim to empty nest syndrome.

One afternoon in 2004, when she was enjoying a cup of tea with her daughter Chanda
Bell, Aebersold admitted to her malaise. Bell knew how much her mother enjoyed writing, so she encouraged her to pen a book.

Aebersold responded, “I don’t have any story to tell.”

Bell then noticed the family’s toy elf named Fisbee “watching” from a nearby shelf and
suggested that her mother create a story about the family’s smallest member. Aebersold accepted the challenge. “It gave me a purpose,” she said.

The duo decided this would be a book told in rhymes and spent the next six months pulling
together a tale of a good-hearted elf who pays attention to children’s thoughts and activities during the day, then shares them with Santa each night.

The result was the oversized hardbound picture book The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas
Tradition. The offering came in a special keepsake box and included a small, soft, bright-eyed “Scout Elf.”

The pair approached a variety of unenthusiastic publishers who often claimed that people weren’t buying rhyming books. Aebersold says, “We would go to bookstores and look at children’s books, and sometimes it seemed that about 80 percent of them were rhyming. We couldn’t figure what the publishers were talking about.”

Fueled by an unwavering faith in their book, the family decided to dive into the often-risky world of self-publishing. Their endeavor was funded by maxed-out credit cards and depleted 401Ks until her other daughter, QVC host Christa Pitts, came on board full-time and donated the proceeds from her recently sold house. That bought an initial run of 5,000 books.

The women eagerly plunged into the world of craft shows, toy stores and specialty shops to sell the smiling elves which become family members for life. Once adopted, the fantasy
fellows or gals show up in a different spot in the house each day, often prompting a “hide and seek” game for the whole family.

By the end of that first year, all 5,000 books and Scout Elves had gone to good homes.

The trio opened their own publishing house, produced more books, and pushed further
into the retail stores they dubbed “adoption centers.”

Late in 2007, the gods of fortune unexpectedly blessed the hard-working ladies in a big way when a photo of actress Jennifer Garner carrying an
Elf on the Shelf book went viral on the Internet. Sales skyrocketed. Over 13 million elves have been adopted
so far.

An Elf’s Story, a 30-minute animated feature which has now become a modern-day holiday classic, came to fruition in 2011 and airs at Christmastime on TBS and the Cartoon Network.

There’s also a sequel: The Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition, as well as a music video.
A new animated special, Elf Pets: Santa’s St. Bernards Save Christmas, is airing on TBS this month. A giant inflatable Scout Elf has appeared in every Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade since 2012.

Today the company’s website theelfontheshelf.com offers a copious amount of all-things-elf, including books, DVDs, plush pets, tiny clothing, totes and more.

There have been many heartwarming moments over the years, such as the time a second-grader with selective mutism so loved the book that she read it to the classroom. “It was the first time the other children had ever heard her voice,” said Aebersold.

The delightful creation has also encountered a few detractors along the way, with one professor opining, “It communicates to children that it’s okay for other people to spy on you, and you’re not entitled to privacy.”

Aebersold calmly rebuts, “Our elf is there to watch the good in children, not to emphasize any bad behavior.”

Over the years, the Scout Elf has evolved. “Now the face is rounder, there’s a boy and a girl elf, and you can get them in different skin tones,” she said.

One thing that has never changed is the basic rule of the child never touching the Scout Elf, which causes its magic to instantly disappear. That same magic is restored if the youthful offender writes a note to the Scout Elf or Santa, sprinkles cinnamon near the elf, or sings a Christmas carol.

The Atlanta-based company now boasts over 85 permanent employees, all of whom “work for Santa.” Aebersold, who now spends most of her time in her home on Florida’s Palm Coast, is essentially retired but is still involved with the company. “Sometimes I show up and smile,” she says. “But my daughters still do the heavy lifting. Right now they’re working 80 to 90 hours a week.”

Her son, Brandon, is an investment banker. Sadly, her husband Robert, an engineer, died in 2014. As for the future for the business?

There’ll be more about the North Pole and more entertainment in general,” Aebersold
promises. She says that final product approval, though, always comes from Santa.
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