Catholic mommy friends with young kids: I have a Catholic alternative to Elf on a Shelf (TM) (who appears to be creepy and sadistic). It’s totally free: Camel on the Mantle.
Get a small camel statue (from your nativity set, or from an old nativity set you’re not using, or print off a free camel coloring page and glue that sucker onto some cardboard or something). Put him (or her, if you like) on your mantel or some other protrusion (bookshelves will work).
Tell your kids the camel is journeying to your nativity set for Christmas, and will be helped by their good deeds and acts of kindness. Then move him a bit each night in the general direction of your nativity set.
He doesn’t need to flit all over your house. He certainly doesn’t make messes. Sometimes he might help the Laundry Fairy fold the laundry in the living room, or the Dishwasher Fairy move the dishes out of the sink, but it totally depends on whether the Fairy in question is in the mood for a camel’s help.
If the camel makes it to the Nativity set by Christmas: Great! If he doesn’t make it until Epiphany: still great! If he shows up sometime around Candlemas: you’re still good! And if you’re some sort of super-uber mommy type, you can have the camel leave a little treat of cookies or candy or something when he reaches the Nativity set.
This idea was inspired by our youngest daughter and her love of camels. She has one presently leading a procession of teapots in our living room:
A couple of things:
First, no, this idea isn’t terribly original. The Wisemen Adventures predate the Camel idea by a long time, and I recall my sister-in-law’s family having some fun with that! But I think these various Catholic takes on the Elf on the Shelf (TM) should be tailored to whatever works for your family. Advent can be a stressful enough time without having to follow the rules of a cleverly-marketed game in such a way that your children’s elf’s antics will cause tears of envy at school. Who needs that?
So whether you do something with a camel or some wise men or the angel from the Nativity set or some totally different thing that works for your family--the important part is the “works for your family” part. We had to give up on our old tradition of slowly moving the pieces of the Nativity set towards the stable after we got cats, for instance. Nobody wanted to be looking for the Blessed Mother under the couch on Christmas Eve (and “under the couch” would be one of the good places...)
Second, the question arose on Facebook: how does the camel know if you’ve been good? Clearly this isn’t some sort of creepy spy camel. One good suggestion was that the children’s guardian angels might keep the camel informed. I think young children would be satisfied with “Wise camels just know...” One of my nephews, though, thinks he should report to the camel, and I think a “nightly camel report” could be really cute! The kids could share at the dinner table or before evening prayers what good deeds they’ve done that day.
Third: if your family already does “Elf on the Shelf” (TM) and loves it and enjoys it, there’s no need at all to go with a Catholic substitute, because all of these things are extras and add-ons to help the littlest ones participate in the joyful and prayerful anticipation through Advent that points to Christmas. While I tend to sympathize with those people who find “Elf” difficult and a little overwhelming (honestly, I was sort of glad that my girls were already too old for it when this trend really took off), I know that not all Catholic moms are like me--some of you don’t break out in hives at the sight of craft materials, for one thing, and some of you are super-organized, for another, so for some of you “Elf” is fun and enjoyable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
UPDATE: One of my girls reminded me that we had sort of stopped the Nativity set moving before we got the cats, but when we talked about going back to it we looked at the cats and thought--no. Because our cats really, really like Bookgirl’s Nativity set. They keep stealing the sheep. :)