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Un-designing Knee-hugger Elves: Class, Multi-culturalism, and the Globalisation of Christmas Kitsch

The Knee-Hugger Elves on my Grandmother’s Mantel. Photo retaken from the Tunstall family archives by NaTasha Tunstall-Smith

“I remember having to use shoe polish to colour in the faces,” my Aunt Jill recalls, when I ask her about the “black-faced” knee-hugger elves that adorned my Grandmother’s fireplace mantel.

Knee-hugger elves are Christmas novelty toys that were mass-produced in US occupied Japan during the 1950-1960s. As made evident by their nostalgic popularity on eBay, Pinterest, and Etsy, they define a key aspect of the Christmas experience for middle to lower class Americans who grew up during the 1960s. Today, knee-hugger elves are popular again due to the success of the book, the Elf on the Shelf, written in 2005 by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. The values, design, and experience of both vintage and contemporary knee-hugger elves tell us something about processes of globalisation, class, multi-culturalism, and the secularisation of Christmas.

Vintage Elf on the Shelf - 1960s Knee Hugger Elf. Image attributed to The Home Gnome Shop on Copyright Becca 2011.

We Wish You a Merry (Religious? Pagan? Secular?) Christmas

Historians of Christmas debate the conflicting value systems represented in its celebration. It seems that at the heart of the conflict is the difference between folk and elite values regarding public/private celebration, the relationship between heaven, earth, and humankind; adult or child-centredness, and who judges appropriate behaviour.

As a religious holiday, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth signifies the hope for the salvation of human souls as judged by God. Thus, at the centre of its value system is the relationship between God in heaven and humankind. Jesus’s miraculous conception, humble birth in the manger, visit from the Three Magi, and heralding by the star of Bethlehem were given form in the crèche or Nativity Scene by the aristocrat turned monk, St. Francis of Assisi Italy in 1223. The crèche sought to connect illiterate peasants with the Biblical story through visuals and public performance.

Another set of values relates to the pagan Winter Solstice rituals that Christmas is said to have replaced. Focused on the relationship between nature and humankind, the evergreen branches of the Germanic Christmas tree herald the coming of spring, the rebirth of life, and the eventual end of the deprivations of food and warmth that winter brought. These values manifest themselves in the public festiveness of the evergreen and ribbon decorations, Christmas feasts, drinking of alcohol, and dancing parties. The festivities of Christmas are what is often criticised by those who adhere to the first set of values and have sought to reform them.

The third set of values relate to US reinventions of Christmas in the 1800s. Stephen Nissenbaum in his book, the Battle for Christmas, describes how the New York upper class Knickerbockers, led by John Pintard, attempted to develop a set of Christmas rituals that evoked “old customs” with the aim of bringing “decency, temperance and sobriety” to the plebeians (i.e. poor and working class people) of New York. They first invented Santa Claus as a pseudo-Dutch folk figure immortalised in Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas. The jolly figure of St. Nick, the sleigh, the reindeer, the stockings, and the bag of presents in secular Christmas iconography were introduced to the public for the first time.

Nissembaum states that while social relations between humans were a focus in all forms of Christmas celebration, that during the 1800s the patron-client relationship shifted from those between adults of different social positions to those between adults and dependent children. Thus, Christmas became child-centred. Public revelry in which the classes mingled became private domestic functions of only kin and close neighbours.

What is crucial for understanding the role of the knee-hugger elves is that Santa Claus became the judge of appropriate social behaviour. Elves assisted Santa Claus both as his employees in toy factory and as his spies reporting on children’s “naughty or nice” behaviour.

I’m Dreaming of a Multi-Cultural Christmas

Knee-Hugger Elves in Yuletide of Japan Box. Hayburner86 on eBay

Posts on the Internet state that the knee-hugger elves were made by a company called Yuletide of Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. The rebuilding of Japanese manufacturing by the US occupying government intended to enable Japan to pay off its war debts to the US and other Allied nations. The manufacturing of toys and novelties were part of this strategy. The 1956 Far Eastern Survey stated, “Very cheap Japanese toys and novelties have been common in the United States.”

The knee-hugger elves are part of Christmas kitsch in both of what Thorsten Botz-Bornstein describes as the Western sense of the “adaptation of high culture for mass consumption” and thus “the search for individuality through kitsch” and also the Japanese sense of cute-kitsch “not derived from high culture” but rather an innocent expression of another parallel aesthetic.

Manufactured at a time when “Made in Japan” meant poor quality and dangerous products, the knee-hugger elves got their names from their bodies, which were made from wires wrapped in cheap colourful fabrics such as felt and/or burlap. Their bendable arms hugged their bendable knees, so that they could either sit on shelves or be hung as Christmas ornaments.

Made in Japan label on 1960s Vintage Knee-Hugger Elf. Image attributed to The Home Gnome Shop on Copyright Becca 2011.

The knee-hugger elves’ heads were plastic injection-molded. The Far Eastern Survey describes how they were also found to contain celluloid when a 1954 Rochester NY newspaper reported the toys to have burst into flames and give off toxic fumes near heat.

Their plastic skin was pale peach in colour with side-parted hair that was either blond, white if elderly, or dark brown in colour. Their eyes were often blue with large black irises and three lines of long eyelashes. They possessed either button or long upturned noses. Their cheeks were fat and tinted pink.

Although made by the Japanese, the elves reflected the invisibility of people outside the Caucasian race from the popular imagining of Christmas that continued until the late 1960s. Reinforcing the social changes in the 1960 and 1970s in the US, my Grandmother painted our elves black because she believed that as African-Americans our skin colour needed to be reflected in our world.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

The experience of knee-hugger elves is either one of creepiness or nostalgia. Young kids find the elves creepy and mostly adult females feel nostalgic about them. Two of my friends on Facebook recently posted that their young children were afraid of their knee-hugger elves on the shelf. The negative reviews of the Elf on the Shelf almost all relate to their young kids’ fear of the doll.

Injured “Elf on the Shelf” Sitting on a Friend’s Christmas Tree. Permission to use photo granted from Lorelie Vargas. Copyright Lorelie Vargas 2013.

This fear can be attributed to two phenomenon. First, the faces of knee-hugger elves resemble those of clowns, which according to the Smithsonian magazine even 2% of the adult population find clowns scary. Amazon reviews discussed how they wished the face was “cuter” or “more friendly” looking. Second, the surveillance responsibilities of the elves create a sense of paranoia. Basically, the knee-hugger elves snitch on kids by telling Santa about their naughty behaviour. Jana on stated that her 3 year old daughter “… just doesn’t like the idea of a doll watching her all the time, not sure I blame her on that one.”

The nostalgia expressed by mostly adult females is directly related to the memories of the childhood triggered by the remembrance of knee-hugger elves in their grandmothers’ homes. Jen of Urban Moms wrote in 2007:

I felt like a little girl all over again, playing with these adorable little felt dolls with my sisters, counting down the days until we could open the pile of presents under our tree. It was a time of unadulterated magic for me and my sisters – the lead-in to Christmas. And these little knee-huggers are emblematic of that wonderful, magical time for me.

Although I feel nostalgic for my Grandmother’s knee-hugger elves, I reject the underlying values of social behaviour policing and the lack of multi-cultural representation in their design that they symbolise. The Elf on the Shelf does have a light brown skinned with brown-eyes male doll that comes with the book, but the core dolls that come with book both are Caucasian with blue-eyes. So in spite of my nostalgia, I have come to realise that the experience of Christmas that I want my family to have does not include knee-hugger elves. Perhaps, I need to design my own new customs for my family.

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