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I threw the Elf on the Shelf in the garbage: Our advice columnist tackles messy holiday dilemmas

My husband says I "ruined Christmas" ... did I?
An elf on the shelf in a garbage can
Kelsea Petersen / TODAY Illustration

Christmas can bring out the best, and the worst, in people. The holiday season is positively bedeviled with family dilemmas that range from "honest mistake" to "run, run and don't look back."

On the Reddit forum "AITA" (Am I The A******), such predicaments abound. We turned to our expert on etiquette and general life to tackle these tough issues.

Catherine Newman, author of “How To Be A Human” and longtime etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine, is here to answer some of the trickiest holiday questions.

Q: I threw the Elf on the Shelf in the garbage and “ruined Christmas” according to my husband. Did I?

I am married with three children: Jonas, age 9; Aidan, age 8; and Caty, age 5 (not their real names).

This year was the first time we decided to try the “Elf on the Shelf.” It was my husband’s idea, and I agreed. We bought the cute Elf. My kids named him Bob. Later my husband explained them they should behave, and never touch/hold Bob f they don’t want Bob to be naughty.

At first, it was cute to see them spy on Bob, try to see him “fly“ each night. Aidan was the most excited of all.; I found him one night talking with Bob and, asking it if Santa still remembered him and the fact that he has a birthday on December 24th.

But my husband took seriously the “Behave or Bob will be naughty” part. Jonas was his first victim after he didn’t do his chores. The next day, when Jonas woke up, his face had been  was scribbled on by “Bob” with Sharpie markers.

Then, Caty touched Bob and her favorite pajamas was destroyed. Apparently, “Bob” cut some pieces of it while she was sleeping in it.

My husband was having fun, but I could see my kids weren’t. I talked to him about calming down the pranks. But he still wanted to “catch” Aidan since he hadn’t broken any rules yet. I told him that Bob’s supposed to tell Santa instead of punishing the kids. We argued but he finally agreed to let it go.

Fast forward: It’s Christmas Eve and in the afternoon we have some of Aidan’s friends over to celebrate his birthday. Aidan opens the box holding his birthday cake and starts crying. I take a look and the cake is ruined. “Bob“ is in the box, covered in frosting, and half the cake is gone. My husband starts laughing and so do some of the other parents.

My blood is boiling and I grab Bob and throw him in the trash. My husband and I have a terrible argument. He calls me a bad person for what I did to Bob, says that I’ve ruined Christmas, asks how we’re supposed to keep the “magic alive“ with our kids. I kicked my husband out and celebrated Christmas the next morning with the kids, and wrote a note to Aidan from Bob apologizing.

Did I ruin Christmas?


Christmas has some confusing traditions that seem to blend joyful anticipation with fear of punishment. Santa’s going to fill your stocking with fun stuff! Unless you’re bad — which he’ll somehow know — and then you’ll get coal. But your situation has become extreme, and I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that you’re married to a sadist who is hiding his cruel behavior behind a tradition that’s meant to be fun and playful. And I’m sorry your kids have a dad who is more interested in making a twisted point about his own power than in their happiness and well-being.

The elf is intended to be naughty in a “stick red pompom clown noses to the family photographs” kind of way; he is not meant to be tyrannical and punishing. But instead of a mischievous prankster, your elf/husband is more like the clown doll in a horror movie. Drawing on a child’s face with permanent markers; destroying a child’s favorite pajamas; ruining a child’s birthday cake: These are not festive pranks. This is bullying.

I’m assuming this is the very tip of the iceberg, in terms of your husband’s behavior, and it sounds like you’re taking steps to limit his impact on your lives. Good. Now you can lean into the joy and the magic of the season, where kids get to be curious and full of wonder without being punished for it.

 Q: Should I let my ex-husband’s daughter come to our Christmas?

My ex-husband and I got divorced seven years ago and share custody of our 13-year-old daughter. He remarried, and has a 5-year-old daughter with his now-wife. His daughter and my daughter spend time together regularly at his house and adore each other, but his 5-year-old doesn’t spend time at my house.

His wife has been diagnosed with cancer and has started treatment recently. He asked me if we would include his 5-year-old in our family Christmas this year. He said due to his wife’s treatment, they won’t be able to have a regular Christmas celebration this year, and that wasn’t “fair” for his daughter. I said I was sorry, but my family’s traditional celebration is a sacred thing and I do not feel comfortable including anyone else. (My extended family, who doesn’t know his daughter at all, will also be at our Christmas.)

He said that his daughter may not be family to me, but she sure is to her half-sister. He started going on about how cruel I was being. I saw that he was beginning to cry, so I stepped back and asked him to leave. He later texted me asking me to agree to let his daughter spend Christmas with us. I said no, and now he’s calling me selfish and unfeeling. What should I do?


I understand. You’re thinking, from a kind of legalistic standpoint, that you have no obligations as a result of the choices your husband has made since your divorce. OK. That’s true. But from a human standpoint, consider the fact this is a blameless child. A total innocent who is stuck in a terrible situation not of her making. What if it were you in cancer treatment and your daughter without a holiday? What would you hope someone would do?

So, yes, while you are right that this is not your burden to bear, just go ahead and bear as much of it as you can. Whatever you can do to ease the pain of this child’s experience — do it. Ease her pain. Complain to all your friends that your ex is a selfish, entitled jerk and that he’s pushing at all of your good, clear boundaries. (He is.) Then invite his little daughter into your holiday so your own daughter can see what compassion looks like. So she can learn that we stretch and open when the opportunity comes our way, even if it’s not what we pictured. So you can show her that when we offer as much as possible what we get back is more than we could have imagined. Call it the spirit of Christmas — or call it grace.

Q: Am I a rude, entitled mom or are my aunt’s expectations unreasonable?

My mom hosted a party the other night and one of my aunts bought a bunch of gifts for all the kids. My twin toddler sons, who just turned 2, simply glanced at the toys and moved onto something else. I thanked her and made a joke about how unpredictable toddlers can be. She rolled her eyes and said, “That was rude.”

I told her that they’re toddlers and she said, “So? My kids knew how to say thank you by the time they were 3.”

I told her that they sometimes say please and thank you, but they’re still learning.

She made a noise and said, “Learning to be rude.”

I told her she was being a little sensitive and that they’re literally babies.  (To be clear, they just turned 2 and they don’t speak many words.) They don’t even understand the concepts of being “rude” or “ungrateful.”

She got annoyed and said that we shouldn’t expect any more presents, and that she hates entitled parents like me.

I said “whatever,” and told her she could keep the gifts she bought for today since my kids couldn’t care less about them. She got all red in the face and said now she knows why the boys are so rude.

I was extremely angry at the moment, but now I’m just in disbelief. Who gets offended by a toddler? My mom says my aunt is very upset with me and is threatening to uninvite us from her Christmas dinner (aunt is hosting this year) unless I apologize and promise to raise my kids better. My mom thinks we’re being ridiculous and I should just apologize.


Hopefully your aunt will stop buying you all things, since hers are the kind of gifts that take more than they give. But yes, you should apologize — not for the fact that your children are babies who don’t talk yet and have imperfect manners, but for losing your temper and being ungracious about the presents she brought.

Because, obviously, gifts are more than transactional — they’re symbolic. Your aunt’s gifts say to your kids, in her voice, “I thought of you, chose this for you, want you to love it and love me for giving it to you.” She’s disappointed.

But — and this is the part your aunt doesn’t seem to understand — gifts must be given with no strings attached. That’s what gifts are! They’re not a contract; they are freely given and freely received. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that these recipients are largely preverbal! Plus, the segue into an all-out critique of the babies and your parenting of them — sheesh. There’s a whole other column in here — one about imaginary milestones and how much they can harm kids, especially ones who are differently abled or neurodivergent. But leaving that aside for now, I would try to talk your aunt down off her bitter ledge so that you can continue to have a relationship with her, assuming you want to.

“We’re glad you’re in our lives,” you can say, shifting the focus from material things to human connections. “The kids don’t know how to express gratitude yet, but I do. Thank you. We’re lucky to be together for the holidays, and we know it.”