Last year, we were having dinner with two young ladies at Two on Chicago’s Westside.* One of them, Collis Hancock,  told me about the now familiar “Elf on a Shelf” phenomenon, which at that point I’d never heard of.  But she misremembered her family tradition, explaining to me that the elf was a kind of trickster who pranked members of the family throughout the holiday season.

That sounded like fun.

Hancock later contacted me to let me know that she had gotten the story wrong: the Elf on a Shelf is not a trickster; rather, according to marketing department legend, he simply reports back to Santa every night to let him know if the family has been naughty or nice.

That sounded boring.

I decided to institute a new and twisted holiday tradition based on the misinterpretation of the Elf on a Shelf craze; instead of having holiday stool pigeon, we’d have a prankster elf doing wacky things during the holiday season.

We had spoken with our Norwegian friend, Berit Engen, who told us about the Norwegian tradition of the “Nissa.” This folkloric character is similar to the Swedish “Tumta,” a kind of family spirit that must be given porridge every Christmas Eve. If you don’t give Tumta porridge, he will destroy your crops.

We purchased a elfish looking sprite on Amazon. We called our prankster elf Tumta in honor of this Scandinavian tradition. Throughout the holidays Tumta sat on our mantle during the day; at night, he did things like putting cans of peas in my daughter’s purses, hiding miniature Tiki gods in a pair of boots, and otherwise messing with people.

The only rule Tumta has is that he cannot do anything that would damage a person or thing and he cannot do anything mean. Otherwise, the field is wide open for Tumta’s high-jinx.

With our grandson in town of the holidays, it seemed a perfect time to give Tumta a go. Everyone in the family liked it, and no one more than me who, for some reason, Tumta did not seem to prank very often.

*Obligatory food reference

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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