"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
December 4, 2014
Still No Elf, but There's Bread on My Shelf
by Hannah Bird

Two years ago, I wrote an article about The Elf on the Shelf. I pointed out that it was a fake tradition gimmick. I also pointed out that there was a shockingly high probability that the doll would try to kill you in the most terrifying way possible. I stopped short of calling for the FBI to track Elf crimes, but that was probably a mistake.

Then I got hate mail. In fairness, lots of people liked the article. It has more than ten thousand “likes” on Facebook. They don’t keep track of how many people did not like it. Luckily, some of the “did not like” wrote me delicious snippy emails. I hope that you do or say something in your life to warrant deliciously snippy emails from ostensibly religious people. I have never had such fun.

So last year I wrote about snippy emails and brands. At some point we quit branding things we owned and started branding ourselves with the things that we owned. We tell the story of our lives in things we buy and in so doing we become the possessed.

It was quite frankly, the better of the two articles. But it led to much less entertaining emails.

Instead, I got dismissed by those who claimed I had offered nothing in the place of the evil elf. This is not true. I have twice suggested an elf burning.

Setting things on fire has the dual advantages of being festive and completely destructive.

Gather in neighborhoods. Burn all the creepy shelf elves. But have some musical accompaniment on hand to drown out the tiny evil shrieks. Stuff like that might mess kids up.

But after the burning (if you have one please invite me) what grand tradition am I offering up? I give you Stollen.

The Elf on the Shelf is a cleverly packaged Christmas novelty that purports to be an adorable tradition. Stollen is a weird bread lump that is an actual Christmas tradition. The Elf on the Shelf became popular because a handful of marketers figured out The Fools in the Aisles would buy it. I hesitate to call Stollen popular but what longevity it has earned is based on unbridled optimism.

Each year, you must believe that the Stollen will be better than in years past.

Stollen is a German sweet bread made for the holiday season. It is a yeast bread that is rolled into an oblong and then folded nearly in half. The idea is that it looks like the swaddled Christ child. Apparently the Germans had never ever seen a swaddled baby or they would know that folding an oblong in half just makes half an oblong and not an infant.

My mother lived in Germany when she was wandering about Europe. I had always thought that is how Stollen became part of our family tradition. But one year I noticed that our recipe is the same as the one in The Joy of Cooking and I became suspicious.

Regardless of origin, every Christmas morning of my childhood began with Stollen spread with butter. It was a delicate task to eat enough of the bread for my mother to let me open my Christmas stocking without accidentally eating any of candied citrus peel that filled the bread.

For several years, I thought that perhaps I had just never had good Stollen. When I became an adult and began torturing children of my own with leaden half crescents of bread filled with fruit peel, I promised that one day I would find real Stollen.

One day, I did. I ordered it from a bakery. I was beside myself with excitement. Finally, I would know what I was supposed to be experiencing all those years.

It tasted exactly like my Stollen. And my mother’s. We had the gut bomb texture and vague beige coloring right all along. I have tried other Stollens since. With the exception of a sugar dusting or a marzipan middle none have ventured far from the Christmas mornings of my youth.

What Stollen lacks in flavor, presentation, and edibility it makes up for in one simple fact: it is Christmas to me. I cannot go to the homes of my childhood. I cannot even go to my mother’s kitchen. But I can catch that faint whiff of cardamom and it is the last breath of my childhood kitchens.

I put nice dried fruit in my Stollen. There will be no citron nonsense at my house. But my children still pick through their pieces to find favorites and escape less favored fruits. Sometimes I even put marzipan in the middle. I was always a bit of a fire-starter.

But whatever I add, what I savor most is what I always find there already. I find my six loved and much missed siblings in their own kitchens folding a flat piece of dough in half for no real reason. For one moment of the season, my family — divided by divorce and years and distance — is together.

We can go home to a home that no longer is. We can watch up the stairs for the children we no longer are. We can see the parents that we looked at as children but can only see now. We look back, and forward.

Christmas morning children clinging to opposite coasts of the United States will eat weird bread and know that this is what we do. This is part of the story of us. This is part of our together.

The heavenly niece that I see only in pictures will wrinkle up the cutest nose in the world as her parents try to convince her that this is food. My kids will obligingly eat a piece or two but then steer holiday guests clear with a subtle shake of the head. My husband will remind me to make it and then never eat one piece of this awful magical bread that can span time and distance.

Someday, my children will curse the tradition in their own warm kitchens. Their spouses will watch and wonder what all the fuss is about. My kids will be together for that moment with each other and with me. And my mother. And the loved ones who have wasted perfectly good butter on bread to keep the tradition alive.

My brother-in-law reports that Elf on the Shelf sales are down this year. The backlash has begun. I am assuming that the elves have killed off a fair number of participants too. There is no way those eyes haven’t resulted in the odd murder.

That is the difference between a gimmick and a tradition. The gimmick is already fading. But bread that is no good and no one wants can be the only thing you need.

I am not suggesting that you make Stollen. But find your real Christmas. Resist the urge to give your kids one more made-up store-bought something. The tradition you buy from someone else will never point you back home. A gimmick will not dissolve miles and years. It doesn’t offer time travel and knit together hearts.

The nights of made up elven silliness cannot approach this true magic.

Less bought, more you. And more of your own us. Because someday you will be out of time. You will want to know that the things you taught accidentally and on purpose were true. And you will want to have made a space for those beloved hearts to come home. To you.

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About Hannah Bird

I am me. I live at my house with my husband and kids. Mostly because I have found that people get really touchy if you try to live at their house. Even after you explain that their towels are fluffier and none of the cheddar in their fridge is green.

I teach Relief Society and most of the sisters in the ward are still nice enough to come.

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