Advent · Catholic · Christmas

Self on the Shelf


Where can I go from your spirit?   From your presence, where can I flee? – From Psalm 139

Dear Susan,

They are everywhere. Their flat eyes follow me as I go about my daily business, not judging necessarily, but taking note of all my movements and actions. Have I suddenly gone in the witness protection program? Do I owe someone money? No, it is simply the Christmas Season and our house is under Elf Surveillance.img_7693-1

Depending on your point of view, you were lucky to have missed the Elf Juggernaut with the boys. In the last ten years, parents have had a love-hate relationship with the Elf on the Shelf but few can dispute the motivational opportunities available in possessing a secret agent who reports nightly back to Santa. Most of my kids’ teachers have used them as well. Mac (short for Mac and Cheese, his favorite food) is currently rampaging through my daughter’s second grade class. The rules are simple.  You get your elf, name him or her, and from Thanksgiving on, the elf moves around your house, watching the kids and reporting back to Santa. You can’t touch the elf or it loses its magic.

Since we now live in Pinterest Land, Elf on the Shelf had become a huge deal. You cannot merely hide your elf on a bookshelf and walk away. Oh no. Elves re-appear daily in cotton ball igloos, flour snow angels and different ($$$) outfits. Sound like a lot of work? Yes. Yes, it is. There has been many a December night where I have sat glassy-eyed in front of the Tonight Show wondering, “What will I have the elves do tomorrow?”

We are up to four elves now: Tiny and Bella (the originals), Coco (our Latina elf), and Stealth (the Ninja elf). We even have Elf Pets: Candy Cane the reindeer and Magi the dog. Originally, we fell for the elf hot tub parties with Barbie, joy rides in toy vehicles, bowling with the Wise Men, tea parties with plush characters and turning our milk green. We once did an entire week based on toilet paper pranks alone. I used to keep a calendar of ideas for each day leading to Christmas.

We tried in vain to keep the Christ in Christmas with our elves. I will admit that this might be stretch for some, to take a secular, commercialized object and endow it with spiritual significance. However, the whole concept of Santa Claus was born out of the Christian tradition and I think it’s OK to take these objects and turn them back to their roots. The elves celebrate St. Nicholas’s Day, and the feasts of St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe every year. We also do an annual day for the poor with our little St. Francis and St. Clare dolls. Once a season, the kids wake up to find the elves with the saints and a trash bag. They are supposed to fill their bags with donations for the poor. The second year we did this, my daughter’s reaction was priceless: “Oh no. It’s those guys again. We have to give stuff away.”

“Well, yes, honey. You are still getting an Advent treat today but you can donate some of your toys to the poor.”

“But we did that last year.”


“And they’re still poor? Will they be poor next year, too?”

Maybe we have more work to do.img_7694

Of course, there has been an elf backlash. Some parents are even taking to Twitter about the ways their elves have met their demise. I think this is a swing too far in the other direction. We have reined in our elf activities dramatically and the world didn’t end, nor did the kids notice. Huh.  Some parents also complain about the creepiness of being under elf surveillance as being too Big Brother.  Honestly, I think that is a false premise. There is precious little privacy in our social media-crazy world. Especially as Christians, do we really have any expectation of privacy? Should we? If we believe in a spiritual realm, guardian angels and the all-knowing presence of God (see Psalm above), then no, there is no privacy with God. Are we acting in a way that acknowledges His presence in all we do? That is a scary, thought, I admit, but a life of faith is not for the faint of heart.  The elves are just another seasonal reminder of God’s presence and our own conscience. We never act in a vacuum or alone. Our goodness and our sins are for all, for “you my brothers and sisters.”

A weird thing happened doing Elf on the Shelf all these years. I realized that I am a better person during Advent with the elves. I may not always do my daily prayer devotions during Advent but I have never missed a day with the elves, and that is a daily devotion of a different sort. In helping my kids to re-focus, I re-focused. I have even found myself watching my language and behavior as they gaze down at me. What will my daily report look like? The elves remind me that I am never truly alone.

The last morning the elves make an appearance is Christmas Eve and they always end up in our Nativity scene with a farewell letter (bt-2013 ). In rhyme. I don’t know how much the kids got out of it but it usually gets my husband to tear up.  You might be thinking after reading all of this, “Are the elves really for the kids? It sounds like they might be for you.” Absolutely.  This Christmas, think about getting your own elf. Then, put away your ego for the season and open yourself up to the real presence of God in your life – whether or not it comes in a red suit.

Merry, merry,





Adoption · Faith

Letting Go of Great Expectations: A Dad’s Story

Dear Susan,

We usually think of infertility, or anything to do with babies, as a women’s issue. After all, beedogwe women bear the physical brunt of childbearing, or lack thereof. It is easy to forget that men have a share in these blessings and burdens, too. When my husband married me, he knew I couldn’t have children.  We had discussed it a lot. Unlike you and Dave, we were older when we married and knew that starting a family was a priority for us. We had no time to waste.  While I had been open about my infertility with my husband from the get-go, I also had years to learn to live with the fact of being a living oxymoron, an infertile Irish Catholic. For my husband, this was a whole new world and he had yet to understand its full implications, as I did.

We knew even before we married that we would pursue an adoption plan. I watched as Ted had to acknowledge, and then let go of, all he had hoped for in his family, little by little. First, it was understanding that fertility treatments were not going to be in the cards for us. Next, he had to bury the dream that he would be father to a son like himself. Ted had played football and surfed in high school, like his dad. Ted had followed in his father’s footsteps for college and fraternity choices as well. He was interested in genealogy and his own connection to Native American heritage. Would his son be able to share any of this with him?

dadadoptionTed had to let go of more hopes and dreams before God was done with us. We were blessed with a healthy infant son in our first adoption, only to receive his autism diagnosis just after his second birthday. Any chances that our beautiful boy would follow in his father’s footsteps evaporated once and for all.  Our son continues to be very much his own person. Ted may not be able to throw a football with him but he has become an aficionado of Plants vs. Zombies, Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. It is unlikely that he will attend his father’s alma mater or have any interest in fraternities. Yet, he and my husband have forged a bond so strong that nothing could break it.

img_0744-1It is ironic that although my husband is not Catholic and has no use for saints, he has become a model of St. Joseph. He accepted me as his imperfect wife, not being able to fully comprehend what he was in for. He has silently mourned the loss of the child he thought he would have one day.  He has had to die to self in ways I cannot possibly understand. He has shepherded us through many trials.  He has been the best adoptive father any child could ask for and has a love so boundless for our children that I know he cannot imagine life without them.

My son is about to turn twelve now and I see that he and his father are more alike than they know.  They share what is important. They love faith, family and seek to do right by others. If you ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up, he says “A dad.”  My husband may have a different legacy than he anticipated, but I believe it is a richer and deeper gift that he has shared. His initial sense of loss and grief has allowed the blessings of our family to flower.  In letting go, he has gained much, as have we all.

Hoping to join you one day in that empty nest,josephandjesus