How Does Elf on the Shelf Work? All Your Questions Answered

We have all seen pictures of elves in various locations around Christmas time. You might be eager to participate, but wonder “how does elf on the shelf work?”

Whether you are joining in the tradition with your little ones, or just curious about the tradition in general, you’ll need to know exactly what the Elf on the Shelf rules are. I’m here to help you understand the magic behind Santa’s little scouts and explain how Elf on the Shelf works.

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What is the Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the Shelf is a tradition centered around scouts from the North Pole that report back to Santa every night. They help him keep track of how well your little ones are behaving while he makes his final preparations for his busiest night of the year.

Where did Elf on the Shelf Come from?

Elf on the Shelf was a family tradition that Carol Aebersold started with her family elf. In 2005, she and her daughters decided to share their tradition with the world along with The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition short story, which you will receive with every purchase of an official Elf on the Shelf scout elf.

Where can I Get an Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the Shelf is available on their official website, as well as on Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other retailers. However, don’t feel as if you need an “official” scout in order to be part of the tradition.

If you have an elf already, feel free to use it. If not, any elf figurine will serve the same purpose as long as your little ones believe the magic applies to it.

What are The Elf on the Shelf Rules?

The Elf on the Shelf is just like any other tradition with rules to keep the spirit alive. The basic rules are to name your elf, DON’T TOUCH, have your little ones tell it their secrets, look for your elf every morning, and always be kind and helpful!

Need help remembering the rules? Download a printable copy below!

Elf Rules
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Do you Have to Follow the Elf on the Shelf Rules?

As with every tradition, you can make it your own. If you feel that some of the rules listed don’t fit what you want, feel free to adjust them as you wish.

How Does the Elf on the Shelf Arrival work?

Pick a day for the elf to arrive! Some parents plan for the elf’s arrival right around Thanksgiving, because that is when the Christmas festivities start to ramp up. Remember, once your elf arrives, they move daily until Christmas Eve!

Lots of families choose to do a grand entrance for their elf along with a note from Santa!

Related Post: Elf on the Shelf Arrival Ideas

How does The Elf on the Shelf Actually Move?

The parents have to move the elf. This can be done very simply or more complexly!

Maybe during the week, the elf just moves places, but on the weekends, you do a funny little scene! Your elf, your rules!

How do you Heal Your Elf on the Shelf?

Picture this, the kiddos are being rambunctious, and they accidentally touch the elf..OH NO!

Touching the elf hurts him/her and makes them lose their magic! So, what do you do to restore their health and bring the magic back?!

There are a few ways, and if one doesn’t work you can try another!

Via The Nerds Wife

Write an apology note

Have your kiddos write an apology letter for touching the elf. If they cannot yet write sentences, you can have them tell you what they want to say, and you can write an apology note for them.

Sing a Christmas Carol

Singing a Christmas carol together is another way to heal your elf. This is a great way to teach little ones new Christmas songs!

Apologize to the Elf

An apology can go a long way for your elf, especially in person!


If you didn’t know, elves LOVE cinnamon! If you sprinkle some cinnamon around your elf, it can heal them!

Put the Elf in the freezer!

Elves love cooler temperatures because they are from the North Pole, of course! Returning them to the cooler temps, helps them heal because it reminds the elf of the North Pole!


Elves love glitter, and glitter is another way to heal your elf if they get touched. Simply sprinkle some glitter around them and wait for them to heal!

Leave the Elf beneath the Christmas Tree

Sometimes, the elf can get some magic from the Christmas tree which helps them to heal. Place them under the Christmas tree for a little while and they will be able to heal.

How to Customize your Elf on the Shelf

The Elves are pretty flimsy coming right out of the box, so carefully adding in wire or velcro for positioning will make them easier to position!

Here is a great blog with DIY instructions on making your elf poseable!

What is the Best Age to Start the Elf on the Shelf?

The best age to start Elf on the Shelf with your little ones is between ages 2 and 3. This is the perfect age because they can participate in the family tradition and appreciate the elf’s magic and mischief.

Can adults hold the Elf?

No one is supposed to touch the elf, however, in some instances, you can use tongs or potholders to touch the elf.

You can read here about the special instances that you can hold them using tongs or potholders!

24 Quick and Easy Elf on the Shelf Ideas to Get You Started

Related Post: The Ultimate List of Elf on the Shelf Names

Need more ideas? 49 Funny and Last Minute Elf on the Shelf Ideas Your Kids will Love

What is the most important thing to remember about Elf on the Shelf Rules?

The most important thing to remember about Elf on the Shelf Rules is that you can make your own! This tradition is yours to change up and have fun with.

If you want to add something, do it! If you want to take something away, that’s okay too! Make it your own!

Elf on the Shelf Rule Tips

On occasion, Adults CAN touch the elf

I touched on the special instances above where an adult CAN touch the elf in special instances!

Your Elf Shouldn’t Land Near Candles or Fire

Your Elf is flammable, so flames should be avoided. You can use battery-operated candles if a “flame” is needed!

Your Elf can Take Letters to Santa

Your Elf can take letters to Santa, so have your littles write out their wish list and give them to your Elf!

Your Elf will leave on Dec 24 (Usually)

Most families choose for their Elf to leave back to the North Pole on Christmas Eve!

Via Frugal Coupon Living

What if I don’t have the time to commit to Elf on the Shelf?

Elf on the Shelf is a time commitment. If you are afraid that you don’t have the time to commit that’s okay! It is important to remember that this is your elf and your rules.

While big elaborate scenes are fun, you don’t have to do them! You can put the elf in random places around the house and have your kids find him/her!

If you still are against the Elf due to the commitment of time/remembering to move the elf that’s okay too! I love this Santa Cam option for those families with time constraints.

Does the Elf have to Spy on my Children?

No, this is your Elf and your rules! The Elf can be or not be what you think is best for your family. I understand that some families may not like feeling like the Elf is spying on the children.

Are the Elves Always Naughty?

They can be, but they don’t have to participate in naughty behavior! You can keep the activities fun and easy.

This is your family tradition! You can do whatever you deem best for your family!

What are the Elf on the Shelf Rules of Saying Goodbye?

Saying goodbye, is always hard especially with the Elf, because little ones start to become attached! Here are a few rules for goodbye!

Elf leaves on Christmas Eve

Santa swings by and picks up his Elf on Christmas Eve!

A snack for the trip

Leave your Elf a snack for the trip! Elves love candy canes, cookies, brownies, hot chocolate, any sweet treat really!

A note goodbye

Help your elf create a goodbye letter to your little ones! They will absolutely love getting a special letter from their elf!

Get the free printable letters here!

Are there any Elf on a Shelf Alternatives?

If you like the idea of the Elf on the Shelf but want to see what else is out there, I have found several alternatives for you!

Santa’s Lazy Gnome

Santa’s Lazy Gnome The Stress-Free alternative to the Elf. Bring home the most welcome holiday guest, Santa’s Lazy Gnome.

Reindeer in Here

Reindeer In Here is a Christmas friend sent by Santa as the first gift of the Christmas season to get to know each individual child and celebrate that being different is normal. As daily adventures unfold between child and Reindeer, the Reindeer learn about each child and help Santa deliver their true Christmas wishes!

World’s Smallest Elf on the Shelf

From the makers of the original Elf on the Shelf, comes the action-figure version of Elf on the Shelf!

This tiny alternative is great and easier to move around and equally as fun.

The Giving Manger

Experience the true meaning of Christmas this year with The Giving Manger — a faith-based interactive family tradition that encourages acts of kindness focuses on the joy of giving, and honors the real reason for Christmas: Jesus’ birth.

Elf on the Shelf is a fun family tradition that encourages little ones to behave during the holiday season. I love that it also encourages the holiday spirit and gets parents involved too!

Remember, make this tradition your own! Don’t feel like you can or can’t do something because it isn’t common or popular.

What are your rules for Elf on the Shelf? I would love if you shared your experiences in the comments below!

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