Morality Play, New Jersey Style: The American version of isumaqsayuq

In contrast to the animal play that is covered in the special issue of Learning & Behavior dedicated to The Evolutionary and Psychological Significance of Play, humans often use elaborate representation (language and other symbols) in their play.  An example that occurs during contemporary Christmas season is the elf-on-the-shelf.

By the time I visited homes of low income children in New Jersey (the week after Christmas in 2015), the elf-on-the-shelf was gone from its temporary residence in the homes of children.  In the Madera home, where John (age seven) and his three-year-old brother lived, the elf had first made its appearance shortly after Thanksgiving, but was gone by Christmas eve.

A 2011 children’s book by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chandra Bell, who started elf-on-the-shelf as their own Christmas tradition, described the basis for the small toy elf to have visited.

Have you ever wondered how Santa could know if you’re naughty or nice each year as you grow? …. At holiday time Santa sends me to you.  I watch and report on all you do.  My job’s an assignment from Santa himself.  I am his helper, a friendly scout elf … Each night while you’re sleeping to Santa I’ll fly … I tell him if you have been good or been bad.

John’s father Ben drove a cab at night and by day cared for the two boys, while Mrs. Madera worked her day job. Ben Madera had been a tattoo artist prior to driving a cab, and had an affinity for making art that his seven-year old son, John, shared. Despite two working parents in the home, the Madera’s income qualified first grader John to receive a subsidized school lunch.  They were part of the legion of working poor in post-Great Recession America, for whom the recent economic recovery had not lifted them above struggle.

When I asked young John Madera to draw Santa for me, he drew the elf Max as well:

It was clear that John believed in a close tie between Max – the name he and his brother had given to the family’s elf-on-the-shelf – and Santa. John thought, for instance, that possibly Santa had learned about toy-making from elves, rather than vice versa. The elf-on-the-shelf is a contemporary syncretism.  This bears similarity to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (a character conceived in 1939 in a publication distributed by the catalog company Montgomery Ward), another syncretic element now widely assumed real within children’s Santa mythology.

In the Madera household, in a pattern similar to many other homes and classrooms during December, Max the elf took on a subjunctive or imaginal reality sustained not only by children, but through the support of performances engineered by an adult. Adults moved the elf-on-a-shelf from place to place, overnight, thus making it possible that children would find the elf in a new place each day.

Customarily, when moving the elf, adults “set a scene” that implied the elf had been active, even mischievous, at night.  Mr. Madera relished the creative act of constructing situations that made Max seem naughty, such as tangling Max in Christmas lights (as if he had messed up the lights), or staging scenarios that made it seem like Max had engaged in physical altercation with John’s toy action figures.  One night, Max “went crazy” and landed in the Christmas tree.  Another night, Max got stuck to the front door when he presumably was playing with adhesive tape.  At times Max succumbed to temptation, such as when Max was found next to the crumbs of a jelly donut meant for the next day’s breakfast.  These playful scenarios also take place in other families, many of whom post their elf’s scenarios via photographed scenes of elfin misadventures.  Facebook pages have become devoted during December to showing mischief and trickster-like playfulness in various homes of elves.

In early elementary school classrooms where some children’s teachers placed an elf-on-the-shelf, children told me they were reminded that touching the elf would cancel out its magic.  Teachers, like parents, moved the elf-on-a-shelf at night while creating mischievous scenarios for the elf.  One elf raided the teacher’s supply of Hershey’s kisses and distributed them, one on each child’s desk.   Another drew a picture on the chalkboard.  An elf fell off the shelf after attempting to string a zip-line (with a pulley) from one place to another.

The elf toy thus is assembled together with other props in a kind of still puppetry.  Intriguingly, these stagings correspond in many ways with a less materially based form of emotionally charged socializing dramas:  dramas enacted for the three-year old Inuit child Chubby Maata in Jean Brigg’s ethnography, Inuit Morality Play

Inuit adults engage children with tableaux as well, tableaux enacted through dialogue with a child, rather than through toys and material props.  Such dramas are consciously thought of as having socializing value.  They comprise a facet of what the Inuit call isumaqsayuq, an approach to socialization that literally translates in English to “cause thought.” Adults present Inuit tots with emotionally charged dilemmas that cannot be ignored, such as by asking a question that implies danger to the child.

To take one example, a child who is resentful or jealous of a new sibling might be asked by Inuit adults:  Do you love or wish to kill your baby sibling?  Through as-if scenarios that develop via dialogue, the child works through a presented moral dilemma, as the child’s own ideas about actions and intents are applied to dramatic scenarios.  This is a kind of morality play, Brigg’s book’s titular allusion to ritual allegorical drama in medieval Europe.

Like the playful dramas of isumaqsayuq among the Inuit, elf-on-a-shelf both requires and invites an allotment of playfulness and creativity from participant adults, albeit adult scene-making by American parents is done without the child’s participation and takes tangible form.  The opportunity for creative subjunctivity seems central to the elf-on-a-shelf’s growing appeal among U.S. adults.  I described in my 1985 book Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith how American adults reap from Christmas an opportunity to vicariously enter such states of mind as wonder, awe and the suspension of disbelief, through their child’s participation in the Santa ritual. Elf-on-a-shelf allows the adult to directly and actively shape Christmas fantasia.

In a sense, Mr. Madera and children’s classroom teachers were motivated to invest their time in creating elf-on-the-shelf tableaux as a means of partaking in the fuller Santa mythology and ritual. Facilitators of elfin scenarios, through the guise of socializing children, they experienced a version of second childhood via playful subjunctivity.  Examples of adult-made tableaus range from an elf seated in front of a game board across from a doll who is also “playing” to an elf seated alone, eating a meal of pancake syrup, marshmallows, and spaghetti.   Christmas can be a socially sanctioned catalyst for adults to scavenge their childhoods of memory, to let go of literal reality, and to act out a bit of mischief – all justified as instilling children with righteousness since the elf is presumed to be a moral monitor.

The fact that Max and other elves engage in high jinks and mayhem lends an isumaqsayuq-like force to adult-made elfin displays. For elfin scenarios do seem to serve as a jolt to moral thinking for the children who discover morning-after evidence of acts an elf has committed the night before.  Children like John are not unsympathetic to their elf’s mishaps, but they are also prompted to reflect on the outcome of unchecked elfin impulses, whether this is one less jelly donut or disturbed ornaments on the Christmas tree.  John Madera, for example, thought aloud about the mixed-up outcome that occurred when his elf Max’s impulse to fight went unchecked:

Maxwell … sometimes he fights with toys.  Last time the toys were fighting, they got scotch tape, taped him to the door … My toys captured him and taped him to the door.  They even taped his mouth. [John, 7]

Thanks to parental creations of elfin tableaus, children witness a pageant of miniature morality plays in the weeks leading to Christmas.  These little dramas make children into eyewitnesses of possible implications of mischief and unchecked indulgence.  Elves-on-shelves promulgate moral reflection through an American fantasia in material form, through moral possibilities that are patently dramatized.

In an article on conflict resolution in medieval morality plays, Dorothy Wertz (1969) discussed the fact that allegorical drama historically included participation by characters that were literally devilish. She wrote that “Drama … gives the individual the opportunity to participate in fantasies forbidden in ordinary walks of life.”  Wertz called this “test identification,” a kind of trial scenario in which individuals can try out potential social, religious, or personal roles.  At times a temptation may arise to over-identify with less than heroic roles, but Wertz asserts that ego-mastery provides a check on carrying such roles beyond the drama, beyond the stage.  Watching trespass in an as-if frame is a way to bring possibilities to awareness, without actual harm to self or society.  The Inuit might agree, based on their played out scenarios, described by Briggs.

American children with elves in their homes or classrooms thus derive moral lessons from elf-on-the-shelf in at least two ways. First, there is the implied warning that the elf will report their bad or good behavior to Santa, a credible possibility to young believers. Second, elves also serve as negative exemplars of the troubles that ensue if one’s impulses go unexamined and unchecked. In this latter sort of lesson, American children benefit from a materially enacted, American version of isumaqsayuq, by which thought is caused about the implications of actions.  Honing to cultural patterns, the American version of isumaqsayuq,is carried out, first, with a bricolage of material artifacts and, second, with an opportunity for adults to exploit Christmas fantasy for vicarious playfulness.

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