It was 20 years ago that my friends and I donned our Christmas tree-shaped hats and went to see the annual festive release in our local cinema. We were 15, on the cusp of believing we were too cool for Christmas movies, but in hindsight, we were just three teens longing for a little bit of Christmas magic.
That year it would be “Elf” – a movie I’ve returned to every Christmas since. It would stand the test of time, appearing as fresh now as it did then, belonging on my shelf with the other holiday classics: “Home Alone,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
And while elves are more prevalent each year, thanks to Elf on the Shelf and his annual antics, Buddy — the titular character in the 2003 film – still serves as the true embodiment of a Christmas elf — even if he is technically human.
This, of course, underpins the entire premise of the movie – the fact that Buddy isn’t actually an elf. Raised by Papa Elf after crawling into Santa’s sack as a baby in an orphanage, Buddy grows up to be very different from the rest of Santa’s little helpers. He towers above them at 6 feet 3 inches tall, his baritone voice registers octaves lower than the other elves, and he can’t quite master the art of toy-making. It takes him 30 years of awkward moments to realize he isn’t like the others.
Buddy’s quest to discover his true identity through “the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, past the sea of twirly-swirly gumdrops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel” to his destination of NYC can teach us all some invaluable lessons — particularly now in an increasingly fragmented world.
1. Be true to yourself
Buddy’s journey of self-discovery, even if shrouded in the whimsy of Christmas magic, is something we can all relate to. That feeling of never quite fitting in – of searching for “purpose” – continues to dominate much of my own life. Buddy isn’t fully Elf and doesn’t feel quite human, but even while navigating his fragile identity, he remains true to himself. He does not allow the human world to tarnish his Christmas spirit and demonstrates an ability to rise above the hostility that often surrounds him. Along the way, Buddy encounters his fair share of obstacles – New York life isn’t as forgiving as Santa’s workshop; his father is on the naughty list; and Christmas spirit is at an all-time low. But it is in these challenges that the best of Buddy shines through.
2. Find fun wherever you can
Buddy’s enthusiasm and zest for life is perhaps what stands out the most during the film’s 97 minutes. Buddy can turn even the most mundane ritual into an opportunity for fun. He sees elevator buttons as lights on a Christmas tree, a crosswalk as a hopping game, and a revolving door as a fairground ride. He even manages to make saying words like “Francisco” a thrill. And while onlookers might question his sanity, I wonder who’s happier?
The modern world presents endless opportunities for enjoyment, but how often do we take them – How often do I take them? I think of my daily routine and how often I become weighed down by responsibilities. Instead of focusing on to-dos, I should seek out small moments of pleasure, just like Buddy.
3. Spread kindness
Despite some prickly encounters, Buddy treats every interaction – even with strangers – as a chance to spread Christmas cheer. He congratulates the employees of “World’s Best Cup for Coffee” for their hard work, he comes up with inventive ways to compliment women – “You have such a pretty face, you should be on a Christmas card,” and he prepares breakfast for his newfound family (even if it’s an inedible mixture of spaghetti and candy). What makes Buddy great, in the words of his younger brother, is that he “cares about everybody.” He perfectly emulates the first rule in the Code of Elves “to treat every day like Christmas” and even wins over his Scrooge-like father with his charm.
4. Remember there’s always room for hope
Even at his lowest, Buddy can set his feelings of rejection aside to help Santa. In the end, it’s Buddy who saves the day – and Christmas. He comes to Santa Claus’ aid when his sleigh comes crashing down and his influence on others raises the Clausometer just enough to allow the reindeer to take flight. The movie closes on Buddy, who finally finds his place in the world, as seemingly both an elf and human. He reminds us that we can have a happy ending if we live in such a way that puts others first.
And while I might not be afforded the luxury of dressing like an elf and bursting into song at any given moment, I can learn, in simple ways, to be a little more like Buddy.