Many people mistakenly believe that the one true symbol of the American Christmas is Santa Claus. These people are wrong. Sure, every mall worth its Auntie Anne’s salt has a Saint Nick in the food court. Yes, he’s in every seasonal advertisement. Your kid might have learned his name before yours. And yeah, the most seductive Christmas song of all time was written for the big guy. But if you really want to understand the spirit of our country around the holidays, consider the Elf. (Sorry, baby Jesus.)

I’m not talking about the mystical, woodland dwellers from The Hobbit or in German mythology. Nor am I talking about the Keebler elf, though you might encounter some of his product at a family party or two this season. The Christmas elf is a distinct creature, jolly and green and generous. Elves have been part of the seasonal mythology in Europe for far longer than on these shores (in Iceland and Scandinavia they bring presents; the Greeks, ever tragic, are beset by elves who pop up between Christmas and Epiphany for the main purpose of frightening people).

The American version of the Christmas elf— the one who lives at the North Pole cobbling together toys—emerged sometime in the mid 19th century. The exact origins are somewhat murky (some credit Louisa May Alcott), but by 1857, Harper’s had published a Christmas poem with the lines “In his house upon the top of a hill/And almost out of sight/ He keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys.” It was, after all, a time of bustling manufacturing in the United States, a state of affairs that would only increase over the next century or so, alongside the elf’s place in our holiday mythology. The modern Christmas is a paean to capitalism, American-style (and has been since long before people were trampled outside Wal-Marts on Black Friday), and capitalism is nothing without its happy, industrious workers producing goods. Every Santa needs his helper, just as every Henry Ford needed his factory workers.

Then came the 1960s, and Hermey the Misfit Elf. Not everyone is cut out to be a cog in the wheel, man, as the country realized en masse not long after the now-classic television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, featuring Hermey, aired in 1964. Hermey dreamed of following his own path (dentistry: rugged individualism doesn’t always have rebellious trappings), and left the North Pole to pursue it, just as America’s youth began to realize that they wanted to join the Peace Corps or move to the Haight or learn to woodwork in Colorado instead of dropping their resume off with IBM. 

Hermey was the most famous modern elf for decades, until Will Ferrell got in the game. 2003’s goofy, beloved Elf featured Ferrell as a good-natured man-boy, Buddy, who dearly loved the North Pole, but who was too gargantuan for the elf community. In his eagerness to help out, he ended up messing things up for the very people whose lives he wanted to improve. Meanwhile, hegemon America was a year into its Iraq invasion, where, led by a good-natured man-boy with a certain physical resemblance to Ferrell, we ended messing things up for the very people whose lives we wanted to improve. But Elf wasn’t ultimately a story about disillusionment: Though Buddy has a rough series of encounters with modernity in Manhattan, the Christmas spirit triumphs, and only the belief that Santa Claus is real—that the old traditions and belief system are worth fighting for — saves the day. It was a perfect post-9/11 feel-good morality tale.

Elf is now a Broadway musical and a new Christmas classic, but for an entire generation of children, neither Buddy nor Hermey nor the old industrious woodworker will be their vision of what an elf is. That honor will go to Elf on a Shelf, the wildly popular symbol of Christmas for the surveillance-state era. In case you don’t have young children: the Elf on a Shelf, a massively successful marketing spin-off of a self-published 2005 children’s book, is a doll that parents purchase and perch throughout their home, sometimes moving around during the night to further convince their kids of the figurines magical powers.

According to the official description, “At the start of each Christmas season, the elf appears to serve as Santa's eyes and ears, traveling back to the North Pole each and every night to make a detailed report of the day’s activities. This keepsake gift set includes a light skin, blue eyed boy North Pole pixie scout elf and a hardbound watercolor picture book. Children can register their elf online to receive an official adoption certificate and a special letter from Santa.” (There’s also a “brown-skinned” Elf if you like your surveillance a bit more multi-culti.)

Santa has been watching to see if you’re naughty or nice for a long time, of course, but now he has eyes on the ground. Parents no longer have to convince their children that he is omniscient, and so, relieved at the ease of it all, they’ve happily welcomed a spy into their homes without questioning the long-term implications. Now here’s physical evidence for the budding preschool skeptic—the kid who will also grow up taking for granted the trove of information that various government agencies and places like Google and Facebook are collecting on him. Sure, we leave cookies for Santa near the hearth, but now we also leave them in our browser for the busy elves of commerce: how will St. Nick know what you want for Christmas if he doesn’t have a record of other products you’ve viewed on Amazon? The elf of 2012 is, like the American economy, based more and more on data collection than manufacturing. Have yourself a wary little Christmas, kids.