GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Chanda Bell, co-creator of the Elf on the Shelf.

Elf on the Shelf has its origins in Georgia.
Credit: Courtesy of Chanda Bell

Every morning as Christmas draws near, little elves grace the shelves of millions of households. The Elf on the Shelf is a relatively new Christmas tradition, based on a book in which a scout elf monitors children for good behavior during the day and reports back to Santa at night. The elves reappear in different poses around the house each morning, daring the children to find them and perhaps catch them in acts of mischief. The Elf on the Shelf–both the book and the dolls–were created by a Georgia-based family business, Lumistella. Chanda Bell is co-CEO of the Lumistella Company and co-author with her mother on The Elf on the Shelf book. She spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.


Peter Biello:  So tell us a little bit about the origins of Elf on the Shelf. How did you come up with the idea?

Chanda Bell:  Well, when I was a little girl, Santa Claus used to send an elf to our home. And that elf used to watch and listen every day and then fly back to the North Pole and report to Santa at night and in the morning. Before we woke up, the elf flew back and landed in a different spot in our house. And so this really was a beloved tradition that my sister and brother and I grew up with. And as we became adults, we realized what a special tradition this was for our family, and we decided to share it with the world.

Peter Biello:  And one of the ways you did that was by taking an enormous risk and self-publishing this book. Can you tell us about what that experience was like trying to get other people into this world that you experienced as a child?

Chanda Bell:  The short answer is that we just couldn't get anyone to publish our book. No one was interested. No one knew what to do with this elf that came in a box. And so it was one of those things where people just had no idea what to do with it. The traditional publishers didn't. We weren't famous. The idea of self-publishing wasn't anything that any of us knew about or understood. We had no experience in the industry and we certainly didn't have to pennies to rub together. But I think when you have a dream and you're driven to accomplish that, you can do pretty amazing things. And so my husband and I didn't have a lot, but we did have good credit. My sister sold her house in Pennsylvania and moved in with my mom and dad, put proceeds towards that first order of product. And then my mom and dad had just a couple of hundred dollars and a small 401(k) that they cashed out and put in as well. And so my dad owned a small engineering and fabrication firm and he gave us a computer and a phone and one little desk, and the three of us shared that and ended up launching what would become the Lumistella Company and the world-renowned book that people know today as The Elf on the Shelf

Peter Biello:  My understanding is that you were selling the book at churches. Your husband was a teacher and he was selling it at school. But then you caught a big break when I guess Jennifer Garner was seen with a copy of The Elf on the Shelf.

Chanda Bell: That is correct. We have no idea how Jennifer Garner got a copy of Elf on the Shelf. But if I ever see her or meet her, I will definitely thank her. I mean, just she held it as if she was doing us a favor and she really was walking down the street with the whole face of the book facing out. And so that caused quite a stir. And that same year we were on a segment on the Today Show, and before we knew it, you know, the phones were going up.

Peter Biello:  These elves now appear as memes. People take photos of how the elves appear. I know my niece once woke up one morning to find the elves in her house pouring cereal, which was kind of frozen in motion, I think, by marshmallow. I'll have to ask my sister-in-law how she did that. There was cereal all over the counter. Really fun for the kids. I'm sure you've seen photos like that on social media of The Elf on the Shelf doing fun, mischievous things. Do you have any favorites of those photos that you've seen?

Chanda Bell:  [Man, I am blown away by some of the things I have seen elves do. I've seen them gift wrap entire kitchens and bathrooms. I've seen, like you mentioned, I saw some really great cereal. I've seen Tootsie Roll snow boats and maple syrup snacks and just all sorts of fun. But I tell people all the time: just make sure it's about creating memories with your family and not competing with the elf next door.

Peter Biello: One of the ideas you have behind the Elf on the Shelf is that it's about building Christmas spirit, right? Like if you have a lot of toys, you get another toy, you give one away. It is a way to be kind, to be generous. And it strikes me that the Elf on the Shelf that we see on social media doesn't necessarily convey that. It's not anti-that, but you just don't necessarily get it with these fun little ideas that people do. Are you worried that the message about kindness in Christmas spirit is getting lost in the social media messaging?

Chanda Bell:  Well, I think we see just a small portion of what the Elf on the Shelf and I think you're referring to our new Elf Mates brand really means to families. We're only seeing the part that makes that the picture, that makes social media. But I think behind that, we have four animated specials that run on Netflix that are all about faith, hope, love, generosity, kindness. So we're really building an entire world of storytelling. And within that, our focus is very much on the spirit of Christmas and in our world. It takes Christmas spirit for Santa Claus to make his Christmas magic. And our specials speak to that and sort of how our version of the North Pole runs.