AKRON, Ohio — Someone's spying on the VanNatta kids.
Their parents aren't worried. In fact, they approve wholeheartedly.
That someone is Buddy, the elf doll the VanNattas have adopted as a Christmas-season emissary. Buddy's job is to use his magical powers to keep an eye on the five VanNatta children and report back to Santa on the behavior of Corey, 12; Cole, 11; Cade, 9; Cameron, 7; and Caleigh, 5.
That's their mother's story, anyway, and she's sticking to it.
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Colleen and Chris VanNatta of Lake Township, Ohio, are among the growing legions of parents who have embraced the tradition of inviting an enchanted elf into their homes in the weeks leading to Christmas. Legend has it that the elves watch the children during the day and then return to the North Pole each night to share the inside scoop on naughtiness and niceness, along with tips on what the kids hope to find under their trees.
What's especially fun is that when an elf returns each morning, he (or she, in some cases) finds a new place in the house to perch — and sometimes, some new mischief to get into. That inspires the kids to start each day with a sort of treasure hunt.
It also inspires a good deal of creativity.
Elves have been spotted hanging from ceiling fans and stringing lights on trees. They've been found in the midst of snowball fights with other toys, using miniature marshmallows as ammo. They've been discovered making snow angels in flour, crafting paper snowflakes and checking Facebook.
Keeping up with an active elf can take some effort, Colleen VanNatta said. But she likes how Buddy serves as a check on behavior at a time of year when kids can spin out of control. She said Buddy has a knack for showing up where he's really needed, such as near the piano on a day after some of the kids balked at having to practice.
"It is work," she said, "but it really is so fun."
Bianca Murphy agreed.
"It just adds to the magic of Christmas," said Murphy, whose house is the seasonal home-away-from-home to an elf named Ben.
Ben came to stay last year with the Murphy family — Bianca, husband Patrick and sons Sean, 9; Jack, 6; and Joe, 4. She said Ben was fairly well-behaved that first year, but as he's become more comfortable in his surroundings, he's let his impish side show.
One day, he got into the refrigerator and turned the milk green. He's written on the bathroom mirror with toothpaste and unrolled the toilet paper. The Murphy kids have discovered the elf playing Scrabble with some of their toys and having a slumber party with their stuffed animals, during which Ben and his inanimate friends ate popcorn and watched — what else? — the movie Elf.
Murphy is among the parents who share their elves' adventures on social networking sites such as Facebook and Pinterest. Some even manage to capture their elves' hi-jinks on video. YouTube has footage of elves flying, riding toy trains, getting boogie fever with the video game Just Dance 3 and even taking a potty break.
The idea of an elf, angel or other figure visiting children is rooted in a number of Christmas traditions around the world, but an Ohio woman was instrumental in popularizing it in the United States.
The late Flora Johnson of Atwater, Ohio, shared the tradition with her own children in the 1960s, and her daughter passed it along to Johnson's grandson. When Johnson noticed how much the elf's visits thrilled the child, she got the idea of sharing the tradition with other children.
So in 1984, at age 60, Johnson wrote the story of an elf called Christopher Pop-In-Kins and started making elf dolls by hand, which were packaged with the book and sold locally. Over the years, she made an estimated 10,000 dolls, and eventually the kitchen-table enterprise grew into Pop-In-Kins Ltd., a company in Alliance, Ohio, that markets the dolls and books through independent retailers and Amazon.com, said Ed Kuntzman, the company's vice president of creative services.
Johnson was so insistent on maintaining the enchantment that she asked retailers to keep her products behind the counter, shielded from little eyes, said Kuntzman's brother Dave, the company's president. "We're trying to maintain the magic that Flora always wanted the elf to have," he said.
Pop-In-Kins has since expanded on Christopher's story to include a little sister, Christina Marie, and her cat, Mittens. Many families have all three come to visit, Ed Kuntzman said.
In recent years, however, the Pop-In-Kins characters have been eclipsed by the Elf on the Shelf, the brand popularized by Georgia resident Carol Aebersold and her twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts.
Aebersold, like Johnson, made an elf part of her family's Christmas ritual when her children were small. Years later, she teamed with Bell to write the book The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, which the women self-published and marketed along with the knee-hugging elf dolls that were popular in the 1960s.
Certain rules and rituals surround the elf tradition. The Elf on the Shelf makers insist their dolls must be named before their magic can be unleashed, and the company's website allows families to register their elves. And both the shelf elves and the Pop-In-Kins come with a stern warning: Humans must not touch the elves, or their magic might disappear.
VanNatta made the mistake of violating the no-touching rule once, and her son caught her. She explained to him that she'd made a bad choice because she was upset about the children's behavior that day and wanted to shield them by preventing Buddy from going back North and reporting their misdeeds to Santa.
(Note to parents: Sprinkling cinnamon near the elf serves as an antidote to skin contact from the clueless or curious. And what if your elf fails to move during the night? Well, it's just in one of its favorite spots and wants to hang out there a little longer.)
Playing host to an elf requires a certain degree of diligence on the part of the adults. VanNatta said she has awakened in the middle of the night with the realization that she hadn't properly attended to her elf. And when she and her husband were serving their regular weekend duty with the Air Force Reserve earlier this month, she texted the baby sitter to remind her about Buddy's care.
Some parents scoff at that commitment, Murphy said. "Oh, you're one of those parents," she's been told.
She shrugs that off with a laugh.
"I think it's all what you make of it," she said.
She chooses to make it fun.