Stop the Elf on a Shelf & Mensch on a Bench Trend: Put the Magic Back in Christmas & Chanukah for Our Young Children

Resist continuing the Elf on a Shelf & Mensch on a Bench trend!  Take a moment before you follow the crowd and consider what this commercialization of holidays is doing to the magic and how it is warping the lessons you really want to teach your children.

Young children, until approximately age 8 years old, have a difficult time differentiating between fantasy and reality.  Their pretend is real to them.  They become the mommy, daddy, teacher, firefighter, princess and even the dog in order to understand what it is to be those powerful figures.  It is through pretend that they develop empathy, an understanding of relationships in their world and early literacy skills.  It is because they cannot separate what is real from what is not that we can enjoy tales of the tooth fairy and Santa Claus for a short time in their lives.  

Santa Claus – a mixture of myth, legend and history – fires a child’s imagination.  He is a jolly man, larger than life, who lives in a place full of the magic of winter.  He can see all the children all over the world and cute little imaginary elves help him to prepare toys for those who are nice.  Children imagine his reindeer and sleigh as he flies overhead.  They listen for his flight and his hearty “Ho, ho, ho.”  Oh no – wait – he actually can’t do it alone.  He has to send an elf to your house.  Not an elf that fires the imagination like trying to picture Santa Claus.  The elf comes out of a box and actually sits & stares at you.   The elf will do exactly what we tell young children not to do – tattletale.  The elf will report back to Santa and determine if you are worthy.

Santa Claus isn’t the only victim of this lack of understand about why children pretend and how they use that imagination to learn.  The Maccabees and Chanukah have fallen prey too.  Jewish children grow up with the tale of a miracle.  Judah Maccabee, an underdog and hero, leads the army to defeat the Greeks.  When they do, they want to re-dedicate the temple but find only enough oil to light the menorah for one night.  A miracle occurs and the oil lasts eight nights – enough time to get more oil so the menorah can stay lit.  The festival of Chanukah celebrates this miracle of the oil.  It is amazing and is a tale of miracles & faith.   The commercialization of this festival is a symptom of assimilation.  We are living in a society where gifts are given for Christmas at the same time of year.  Gift giving has spilled over into what is really a minor Jewish festival.  It does, however, enhance the joy of celebrating the miracle, gives us a chance to give as well as get and offer the opportunity to give to those less fortunate.  But wait – maybe there will be no gifts!  That Mensch on a Shelf is holding the shamash – the helper candle that lights the others – and if he doesn’t like your behavior, he will refuse to hand it over.  Let’s review – the festival of Chanukah really has nothing to do with gifts. It celebrates a miracle.  Gifts are an added practice and, when done well, brings families together & allows us to be givers as well as receivers.   Now, a doll on a shelf shifts the focus onto the commercialization and away from the story of faith and miracles.  Mensch on a Bench might withhold the candle so you get nothing.

And parents nationwide are relieved because they can take their good & decent parenting skills and put them on the shelf right next to that elf or on the bench next to the mensch. Parenting is hard work and it may feel good to hand it over to a doll but think about what you are doing.  You are literally handing over your role as your children’s teacher and guide to a doll.  You work all the time to help your children to internalize the lessons we teach about respect of others and appropriate behavior.  They need to learn that their actions have consistent consequences.  They also need their desire to receive positive reinforcement nurtured.  Then you take a product out of a box and say, “This will determine if you are worthy.” 
Some parents have told me that their children really enjoy it.   They see Elf on a Shelf or Mensch on a Bench as a fun game.  They have to find it in the morning and enjoy playing along.  Actually, children under the age of about 8 can’t usually be sure if there is any truth to the tattling story or if that old man doll might really be able to prevent the lighting of the menorah.  I’m pretty sure they would think making videos of themselves and posting them on the internet would be fun too but you don’t let them do that.  

Understand that I am not trying to ruin one of the most fun times of year.  I want to reclaim it.  I want children to imagine magical places and miracles.  I want the lessons to be about the wonder of giving as well as receiving.  I want the focus to be on the teachings our religions and not the sales in the newspapers.  I want companies to stop making money at the expense of childhood.  I want Christmas and Chanukah back…

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Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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  1. Some good points made. I totally understand where your coming from.

    1. Thanks! Feel free to share/post the article. People need to be thinking about this.

  2. While I appreciate where you are coming from, I don't think it is a bad thing for children to have "reminders" to behave. Others think that by allowing children to believe in Santa, Tooth Fairy etc. that they are teaching their children to lie or if they celebrate Halloween that they are evil. I just think it all should be where children can use their imagination and enjoy the "magic"!

  3. I don't look at Mensch on a Bench as a reminder to "behave". All Jewish parents want their kids to be a Mensch and this story encourages that. Yes, it's a little silly and deviates from the "traditional" Hanukkah story, but I think the story behind it is better than that creepy elf. Why would Santa need to send an Elf to watch you when he (Santa) already knows if you're naughty or nice? Also, that Elf looks like he is always getting into trouble (from all the Pinterest ideas I have seen). What is that teaching kids? It's just weird to this Jewish girl who can totally buy into Santa. I do agree that the Mensch shouldn't withhold the candle for misbehavior. That is overlooking why we do good things. It's not to get rewards or gifts. We do good things and help others because it is the right thing to do. In a way it's sad that commercialized Christmas "traditions" are making their way into Judiasm. They don't have a place there. There also don't have a place in Christmas. With all this shopping on Thanksgiving and focusing so much on getting presents, the religious part of Christmas is totally forgotten. At least the Mensch on the Bench is instilling some Jewish values. What does the elf have to do with the birth of Jesus? I am so glad that my (Jewish) holidays aren't as commercialized as Christian ones. Yes, retailers will create the Hanukkah wreaths and gingerbread houses to make Jewish families feel better or not left out, but when it comes down to it, Hanukkah is still celebrated in more of a traditional sense than Christmas.


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