THE BLOG
01/24/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Kitchen God -- A Chinese Elf On The Shelf

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Recently, at an auction, I bought a box of delightful Chinese prints -- including various Chinese gods and posters for oolong tea -- all colorfully printed on thin rice paper and block-printed in bright colors.

I was charmed by the jolly fellow pictured above and started poking around on Google to learn more about him.

Turns out he is the Kitchen God, who is tacked up behind the stove in every Chinese kitchen along with a small altar to hold incense burners, candles and offerings.

The Kitchen God observes the behavior of the family all year long and, seven days before the beginning of the Lunar New Year celebration, his image is taken off the wall and burned. This releases his spirit so that he can go to make his annual ascent to the Jade Emperor to report on the way the family has behaved during the past year. After hearing his report, the Jade Emperor decides how much prosperity and abundance he will give to each family in the New Year.

But before burning the Kitchen God, the family will attempt to bribe him into making a good report by bestowing on him sweets, like fruits, honey and lotus cakes as well as candies and rice wine and especially sticky rice -- perhaps as rice balls served in a sugar soup. The plan is that, if the Kitchen God's mouth is full of sweet sticky rice, he won't be able (or inclined) to report on any bad behavior by the family.

Seven days after the old Kitchen God is burned, a new image is installed above the stove to keep an eye on things during the coming year.

This year the Chinese New Year of 4712 -- the year of the wooden horse -- begins on January 31, so you'd better start making sticky rice balls right now, because the day to make sweet offerings and send the kitchen god on his way is -- Friday Jan. 24!

When I read this, I immediately thought of the Elf On the Shelf -- a not-as-antique tradition familiar to nearly every parent and grandparent in the U. S. Based on a book written by the mother/daughter team of Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell in 2005, the Elf is a little bendable doll who comes in a box along with the book (cost: about $30) and, beginning in December until Christmas, he sits around somewhere in the house and observes the behavior of the children (naughty or nice) then, after the children are asleep, he flies back to report to Santa every night. The Elf reappears every morning in a different spot. Finding him makes it a game. But no child must ever touch the Elf or he will lose his magic powers.

When I first heard about the Elf on the Shelf, it all sounded rather sinister and scary -- like Big Brother watching you from the TV set in 1984. This past season, the Elf seemed to be the most controversial thing about the holidays, discussed even more than the elimination of the word "Christmas" from "Happy Holidays " and "Holiday tree." It seems some A-type parents were one-upping each other by creating elaborate scenes of mischief or magic created by their personal Elf overnight -- inventing yet another laborious task for moms during the holidays. Others complained that the Elf was a means of terrorizing children into good behavior out of fear of what Santa would hear.

At Thanksgiving, when her family came to our house in Massachusetts, someone (not me!) gave 2 ½ -year-old granddaughter Amalia an Elf on the Shelf which she promptly named David for no observable reason. She loved the whole idea -- especially after seeing a TV special based on the Elf. She didn't seem frightened of him, although I did see her freeze with surprise when, back in her New York apartment, she realized that David had followed her from Massachusetts and was perched near the top of her family's, uh, holiday tree.

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No one created elaborate scenes for David in the ensuing days -- it was all we could do to remember to move him, but when Amalia found him on the window ledge in the kitchen, I did imply that he had bitten the head off of one of the tiny gingerbread men I bought at Trader Joe's.

When I came to Manhattan to see Amalia after Christmas, she confided to me rather sadly, "My little friend David has gone away."

I promised her he'd be back next Christmas.