For the past 16 years, Elf on the Shelf has become a tradition, both hated and loved, for families in the days leading up to Christmas.
Based on a book and accompanying doll, the elf is a scout for Santa Claus, who watches children’s behavior during the day and reports back to the North Pole every night. There are rules about how to interact with the elf and a myriad of ideas for the things he can do.
Whether Elf on the Shelf is a “footless creep” or a beloved tradition, the concept sparked the idea for Mary on the Mantel, a traveling doll that aims help children enter more deeply into Advent.
Erica Tighe Campbell, founder of the Catholic lifestyle products company Be A Heart, was pregnant with her first child last year when she came up with the idea of creating a Mary doll.
“I was doing my baby registry, and..I saw a closet for a doll, and I thought, ‘What doll needs outfits?’” Campbell told CNA.
“Then I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, wait, Mary has so many outfits in all of her different apparitions. What if there was a really beautiful Mary doll that looked like other things that are selling?’”
The outfits could help teach children about Mary and her messages in the different apparitions she has made, Campbell added.
“On feast days, you could talk about the different apparitions with your children by getting out her Guadalupe dress or getting out her Fatima dress, and recognizing that she is the same person, but she appears to us differently,” Campbell said.
Campbell said she wanted the doll to help foster a deeper relationship with Mary for children.
“I wanted my daughter to have a doll to teach her about the comfort that Mary brings,” she said.
“In my own life, Mary’s motherly love and care is what has brought me through so many difficult times. As a child, going through things with my family in high school, I would always turn to the Hail Mary, that was my go-to,” she said. “And as I've grown as a woman, I really look to her yes...saying yes to God, even when things are uncertain.”
Campbell made her first Mary doll this year, with a simple blue veil and linen dress, available in three different skin tones.
The idea to use the Mary dolls for “Mary on the Mantel” first came from her web developer, who is the father of four children. He suggested that Mary somehow replaced Elf on the Shelf.
Campbell started thinking of ways to tweak the idea of the traveling elf to better suit Advent, and about the ways Christians can prepare their hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
“Elf on the Shelf reports back to Santa if girls and boys are good or bad, and really in my own spiritual life, I have had to kind of undo that theology of ‘I'm good when I do this and I'm bad when I do this, and God is watching,’” Campbell said.
God is not like Santa, she said, in that he’s not a “transactional God, where as long as I'm doing good, then I will reap the rewards of a gift under the Christmas tree. In my own parenting, I didn’t want to pass that message along to my children.”
“And so I started conceptualizing: what could Mary do instead of being this watchful tattletale? That's going to create a friendship with her? How do we teach children to be friends with Mary?”
“I started thinking about what Mary was doing, even before they got the census announcement? She was probably preparing her house, preparing all of these things. She went on a trip to see Elizabeth. There are so many ways that we can recognize the personhood of Mary, and talk about that with our children - that she was a girl, she had normal daily tasks that she needed to do.”
In late November, Campbell posted to social media, announcing the idea for Mary on the Mantel - a Mary doll that would show up in different places around the house every morning of Advent.
Instead of Elf on the Shelf’s brand of mischief, Mary would be caught doing things to prepare for the coming of baby Jesus, like washing baby clothes, or reading a pregnancy book, or planning her journey to Bethlehem for the census.
“I have this image of Mary taking our hands and leading us to her Son, a little bit like how I imagine for my own self, having the baby and wanting people to meet her,” Campbell said.
“We get to prepare ourselves for Christmas, and putting up our Advent wreath and our Christmas tree and cleaning the house and wrapping presents - that is similar to our preparation. We prepare homes just as a mother prepares her home to welcome her new baby.”
Instead of reporting on the children’s bad behavior, every morning Mary would be found with a message encouraging children to do a specific act of kindness each day. The notes can be left in Mary’s tote bag, which comes with each ‘Be A Heart Mary’ doll.
“How do we really become like the people who are prepared to meet the baby Jesus in the manger? We can do acts of kindness for others,” Campbell said. Because the parents can write whatever message they want and place it in Mary’s bag, they can choose acts of kindness that are tailored to their child’s development and what they are capable of accomplishing.
“There are simple things to do. You could read a book to your sibling, or you could do a chore without being asked, or you could write letters to your grandparents, or call a friend, little things like that,” she said.
“Children could go through their toys and find toys that they don't play with that are still good, that could be donated to another child who needs them. But the parents are in control, so it doesn't get overwhelming.” Mary’s linen dress has room for paper towel or tissue stuffing to make her belly “grow,” Campbell added, as Christmas nears and she prepares to give birth.
And for parents struggling to come up with new ideas, Campbell’s blog post on the idea includes long lists of ideas of activities that the Mary doll can do, and ideas for age-appropriate acts of kindness.
The Mary on the Mantel project can be done with any Mary doll or figurine, Campbell added. After her Mary on the Mantel post, the Be A Heart dolls sold out, though Campbell is hoping to have more in stock soon.
Campbell is also planning the first dress for Mary, which will be the Our Lady of Guadalupe dress. And she has plans for a St. Joseph doll, a baby Jesus doll, a donkey for them to ride on, and more.
The Mary on the Mantel tradition also differs from Elf on the Shelf in that parents do not have to put Mary away once Christmas arrives, Campbell said. In fact, the Mary doll is meant to be a companion all year long.
“We really just think that journeying with Mary is an important way for children to enter into the Advent season,” Campbell said.
“It allows for something fun, and something that parents can do that's not super complicated, hopefully, and that kids can wake up and be excited for, and be excited about doing things for other people every day,” she said. “I'm interested to see what comes of it as people use their own imaginations with it.”