20 Best Elf on the Shelf Alternatives

Elf on the Shelf alternatives and other family-centric holiday traditions are becoming popular as parents begin to wonder, Is Elf on the Shelf bad?

Over the last few Christmas seasons, Elf on the Shelf has become synonymous with — and perhaps notorious for — all sorts of wild pranks and silly hijinks.

It’s all intended in good fun, but many parents detect an unhealthy disorder in the Elf’s mischief.

Some are wary of unintentional mental harm caused to children who might actually believe that a magical creature is spying on their behavior.

Others prefer to train their children to enjoy doing good for its own sake, rather than doing good in hopes of getting more stuff on Christmas morning.

Still other families want to have fun and festive traditions that keep the focus on the birth of Jesus Christ and what that means for the world and for their lives.

So, who is the Elf on the Shelf? What does he (or she) do, and what are some healthier substitutes? We’ll answer all those questions and more for you today.

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What Is Elf on the Shelf?

The “Elf on the Shelf” concept actually originated in the 1960s with an Ohio family’s tradition, which was then marketed in 1984 as “Christopher Pop-in-Kins.”

Christopher was a cute but nosey little elf that would aid Santa by “popping in” throughout the holidays. He would play hide and seek each day, then report back to Santa on Christmas Eve.

This toy and accompanying storybook maintained some level of popularity throughout the 80s and 90s and into the 2000s.

In 2005, “Elf on the Shelf” was published with a similar story and elf character. This elf, who comes in your choice of boy or girl, is “adopted” and named by your kids. He observes the household and reports back to Santa each night, landing in a new location each morning.

The big idea behind Elf on the Shelf was to encourage children to be on their best behavior during the holidays.

“Don’t forget the Elf is watching” was (and still is) used to remind children that their naughty and nice deeds were being reported back to Santa, potentially impacting their gifts that Christmas.

They also get to look forward to finding the elf each morning as he occupies a new spot whenever he returns from the North Pole.

Is Elf on the Shelf Bad?

Elf on the Shelf can be a silly and fun family Christmas tradition that brings joy to children each morning of the Christmas season.

However, many parents worry that the little Elfie gets turned into a tool for behavior manipulation. Especially Christian parents, who know that we don’t get gifts because we’re “good,” but rather we celebrate Jesus coming to save us because we so often fail to be “good.”

As the popularity of Elf on the Shelf has soared, many parents go all-in on creating unique scenarios in which the elf is discovered, often in the midst of creating his own mischief. That trend isn’t a part of the original story, but it’s another reason parents might shy away from it.

The Elf on the Shelf Tradition

While many have now grown up with this Christmas tradition, for others it’s a fairly new concept. Elf on a Shelf is just one of numerous family Christmas shenanigans used to build anticipation in children for the upcoming holiday. 

Some families use Elf on the Shelf to encourage the kiddos to be on their best behavior during winter vacation. Others try to design the Elf’s antics to build habits of kindness and giving in the spirit of Christmas.

Whether you decide to go with the classic Elf idea or one of his distant cousins, we’ve compiled a list of the best Elf on the Shelf alternatives for your consideration below.

Elf on the Shelf Alternatives

Several variations of Santa’s favorite little spy have evolved over the years, each with their own stories and lore that children adore. We’ve also included some alternative Christmas traditions that don’t involve elves or even rhyming names.

Christmas Pickle

Elves not really your thing? Then how about a lovely Christmas…pickle? Yup. That’s right. A Christmas pickle. There are many theories as to the origin of the little green guy being hidden in the tree, but most of them point to German or German-American roots. 

Whoever is lucky enough to find the glass pickle in the tree is granted a special gift, reward, or supposed good-fortune for the coming year. For once, being “in a pickle” is a good thing.

Reindeer in Here

Similar to Elf on the Shelf, Reindeer in Here shows up early in the Christmas season direct from the North Pole! But this little guy’s not here to report anything. He’s just here to learn all about your little ones, and remind them that it’s okay to be different (kinda like his cousin, Rudolph). 

Help them come up with a name for their newest winter pal, and they have an adventure buddy that they’ll look forward to reuniting with every Christmas.

Kindness Elves

Instead of spying on kids for the bad things they might do, Kindness Elves encourage and affirm children in small acts of kindness throughout the holiday season.

Each day when the kids find their elf, they will find a message (written by you the night before) either praising them for something kind observed the previous day, or suggesting ideas to encourage them to purposeful acts of giving and helpfulness throughout the new day.

North Pole Ninjas

The kiddos will be tasked with one of the most important missions of all once they crack the binding of this special book — save the spirit of Christmas. Each reader is granted admission into the “secret service” of Santa’s staff: the North Pole Ninjas

Your children will love receiving their daily missions of kindness and helpfulness throughout the holiday season, and completing said missions with utmost stealth. Each book comes with a plush “sensei” to help them on their journey.

Santa’s Lazy Gnome (a stress-free alternative)

So when the Elves get too busy, Santa sends his most… un-busy… helpers. Gnomes are lazy little things that detest moving and expending energy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still see everything happening around them. Their lackadaisical lifestyle can fool you, but their sharp eyes and elephant-like memories are unlike any other.

Christopher Pop-in-Kins (Original Elf on the Shelf)

Remember nosey little Chris that we mentioned earlier? Well, it turns out that Mr. Christopher Pop-in-Kins is still roaming about keeping tabs on children the same as he was back in 1984! In fact, he still looks exactly the same too!

Funny how magic can keep even little elves frozen in time. Ole Chris will come with a beautiful, hardback storybook to be read to your littles year after year.

Advent Calendar

Advent calendars are excellent ways to build anticipation for the coming holiday. Completely independent of any kind of behavior-related strategy, advent calendars are simply something for children to look forward to each day. They learn important lessons about Christ’s birth, and have tons of fun while they’re at it.

Elf Behaving Badly

He may look like he’s in time-out, but don’t be fooled! He’s still performing his Elf duties of reporting to Santa. A cute, more wallet friendly version of the classic Elf on the shelf, Elf Behaving Badly lets kids know that sometimes even magical elves can cause mischief.

I mean, just look at Legolas. Oh, wait. Wrong elf universe.

Elf on the Shelf Pets (Spin Off)

Maybe your kids are worried Elfie will get lonely without his friends, especially since he can’t be touched! Or maybe there are just so many children to keep track of, the elves are spread too thin?

What to do? Well, Santa knows best so he sent the elves’ favorite sidekicks and buddies in their stead or to keep them company! That Santa. He always knows, doesn’t he?

Shiraz on the Shelf

A fun, grown-up version of the Elf on the Shelf tradition, “Shiraz on the Shelf” makes a great white elephant or holiday party gift. Complete with a cute little storybook of its own, it also includes a pretty etched wine glass to put to good use once the kiddos are tucked away for the night.

Christian Elf on the Shelf Alternatives

Here are some wonderful Christ-centered holiday traditions to do instead of Elf on the Shelf. Or in addition to – it’s up to you!

Jesse Tree Ornaments

This stunning Jesse Tree set is one that will be cherished for generations. For those unfamiliar, the Jesse Tree is a visible, tangible representation of the lineage and events leading up to the advent of Christ. Each symbol is taken from, and correlates to, different Old and New Testament passages of Scripture that speak of Christ’s birth. 

This beautiful set is made entirely by hand and lovingly crafted and painted to bless your family for years to come. It also includes an advent guide called “Come and Worship Him” to explain each symbol and verse for each day.

For the pre-assembled version that comes ready to use, see here.

Wise Men Journey

This is such a neat advent celebration for children, as well as the whole family. Wise Men Journey is a 25 day adventure that takes you through a thoughtful and reverent retelling of the true Christmas story.

Beginning on December 1st, each day the children wake up and search for the hidden wise men figurines. They’ll also discover a new Christmas tree ornament that goes along with the day’s devotional reading in the book.

In searching for the Magi each morning, this tradition is similar to Elf on the Shelf. But the Christ-centered storybook and Scripture ornaments make it a truly meaningful holiday ritual that the kids will look forward to every year!

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Shepherd on the Search

Such a cute and meaningful Elf alternative! Children still get to participate in searching for their shepherd each advent morning, but they get to follow along each evening in a devotional.

It won’t be long before their shepherd finds his way to the true gift of Christmas, the baby Jesus! 

Truth in the Tinsel

Truth in the Tinsel is a fun, interactive advent activity book. It’s filled with twenty-five, detailed crafts and activities that always point back to the true meaning of Christmas, Christ! You can either purchase a hard copy of this lovely book, or you can also download an e-book for convenience!

Advent Angel

calendar advent angel

One of the greatest appeals of the Elf on the Shelf concept is getting to search for him each morning until Christmas arrives. Kids love searching for things. Whether it’s Easter eggs, four leaf clovers, elves, or in this case, a Christmas angel.

Just like the elf, you can hide the angel each night for the children to find the next day. Attach a verse or a small devotion before it’s hidden, and whichever child finds the angel gets the honor of reading the devotional.

The Giving Manger

We love this concept! This Giving Manger focuses on service and acts of kindness for your children and the entire family.

For each kind act, a piece of straw will be placed in the manger, eventually building a soft bed of love and care to place baby Jesus on come Christmas day. This set also comes with a lovely storybook to help explain and guide the new tradition.

The Donkey in the Living Room

Donkey in the Living Room is a precious and meaningful alternative or addition to the traditional nativity set. The beautiful keepsake box opens to form a stable scene which will be added to each day with a character from the guided advent storybook.

They will love getting involved and watching the scene come to life.

More Religious Elf on the Shelf Alternatives

Here are some more alternative traditions that feature religious themes from Jewish, Mormon, and Catholic perspectives.

Mensch on a Bench Hanukkah Tradition

This Elf alternative was created by a Jewish father who wished to pass down tradition to his family and children. Mensch on a Bench tells the story of Moshe the Mensch who stayed up to keep vigil over the temple oil, meanwhile imparting his wisdom of Jewish tradition to the children. The set includes both a stuffed Moshe and a beautiful storybook!

Little Lamb from Bethlehem

Here’s a little lamb with a great big story to tell! It’s the story of the birth of Jesus, as told from his perspective. This adorable little guy comes with both daily and weekly activity ideas including readings, devotions, family activities, and an invitation to share the joy of the season by telling others the story of Christ’s birth.

This is by and designed for members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS, also known as Mormon).

Star From Afar

Allow your kids to join in on the excitement of the wise men’s journey to Bethlehem! Each night of advent the star moves to a new place, and each morning the children get to help the wise men catch up to it.

This set is created and designed from a Roman Catholic perspective.

When the night before Christmas finally arrives, the star will find its proper place above the nativity and so will the wise men. This Elf on the Shelf alternative is simple, but interactive enough to give the littles plenty of opportunity to participate.

Read next: Christ-Centered Traditions That Children Love

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