Fiona Ness: 'The real mystery of Christmas'
Baby Jesus wept! It's Christmas, the season of His birth, and there He is, away in a manger, no crib for a bed, and no one is paying Him a blind bit of attention. He only went and got himself born so He could save the whole of mankind from exactly the sort of excess Christmas has come to represent, and who's the man of the moment? Not the Son of God, but a cheap little elf.
The Elf on the Shelf is a teeny apple-cheeked doll who has been encroaching insidiously on our Christmas traditions (religious and non) over the past few years. No one knows exactly where he came from, only that America had him first (obvs) before he made it big over here.
The Elf is now turning up on Irish mantelpieces to police the little ones in the run-up to Christmas. He comes with a strict set of rules (detailed in a book which has sold more than six million copies worldwide), which include the fact children may not touch the doll, must acquiesce to being monitored by him 24/7, and have their behaviour reported back to Santa Claus.
A Canadian study this week called out the Elf as one of many developments that are threatening our collective definition of privacy. It called the Elf "a capillary form of power... teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance and" (in a most unChristmassy turn of phrase) "rectify hegemonic power".
But that's not my real beef with the Elf on the Shelf; it's the workload he's brought with him. Each evening of Advent, the parents of Ireland are retiring exhausted, having chased the little imp around the house as he variously eats his way out of the biscuit tin, scribbles on the walls or abseils off the fridge. And then they've got to record and edit the whole thing down into a 30-second video for their social media feed.
At school, children are feeling the status anxiety too, as they measure their Elf's performance against that of the next kid's. If you haven't attracted 100,000 viewers to his very own YouTube channel by December 12, you've ruined their Christmas.
I'm tyrannised, not tantalised. Isn't Santa enough for us? Why is it that every year, Christmas has to be a little bit more?
Where's me jumper?
Even if you're not trying to outmanoeuvre an Elf this Christmas, the scope-creep of Christmas is everywhere, leaving the season in danger of unceremoniously eating itself.
Take the Santa visit. You no longer stop off at the local co-op's Santa's grotto, you pay in excess of €100 in August for the entire family to take in a Santa "experience" that recreates Lapland right here at home.
This afternoon-long extravaganza must include a ride on a toy train, a bit of make-and-do, fake snow and a photo op with the great man himself as your child is dispensed the same old crappy toy as the co-op.
Then, once you've replaced your memory-filled Christmas tree decor with the latest trend for rubber flamingos (So kitsch! So Christmassy!), it's off to the 12 pubs of Christmas, where work colleagues don Christmas jumpers and imbibe their weekly alcohol allowance in under two hours.
And while we're at it; what in all that is wrong with consumer culture is the aberration that is Christmas jumpers? One minute I was wondering quixotically what Colin Firth was doing wearing a knitted reindeer in 'Bridget Jones', the next I was witnessing an entire nation making the most environmentally unfriendly fashion choice of the year.
The wearing of the Christmas jumper, once something to be pitied, is now a celebration of our own naffness.
Flashing jumpers, plastic elves and cutting-edge Christmas trees. In the bleak midwinter, indeed.