A Do It Yours Elf Project Long, Long Ago! - Betty Streff
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A Do It Yours Elf Project Long, Long Ago!

A Do It Yours Elf Project Long, Long Ago!



I’m not sure where to start this time. You see, life amazes and inspires me. Every single day. It’s overflowing with wonderful lessons to ponder. And, there’s a gift I want very much for you to receive this Christmas. I’d like you to see your life with new eyes so you can be amazed, too.


This is a story about a gift we opened more than fifty years after we received it. That, dear friends, is the message I want to share with you. No matter what happens through the years, no matter how sad or hopeless things may seem in the moment, there’s always a gift. Often times, we don’t even see it, let alone unwrap it for a very long time.


Believe me when I say every single day of your life matters. So, I’ll begin in 1966.

elf on a shelf


Long before Facebook, Pinterest and Elf on a Shelf


Long before everyone took a zillion pictures or videos and chronicled everything they do on Instagram or Snapchat, my dad and I came up with a Christmas project. There’s not a single photo of us at work on the elves. Not one.


A little background. My dad grew up in the small town of Aalborg, Denmark. He met our mother in Iceland when he was working there as a naval engineer. In 1950 they came to the US following in the footsteps of his successful Danish uncles.


It was an eleven day trip across the Atlantic and another long journey to Iowa. Mom and Dad settled in the Danish community of Audubon. They brought a trunk with their belongings, $100 and lots of Scandinavian customs. And so began their new life. One of the most charming “Danish-isms” they brought with them were the small elves, “jule nisse,” that perch on shelves during the holidays. They were usually about six inches tall and made of cardboard.



In the fall of 1966, we hatched a plan to enlarge the little cutouts to actual elf size. (How tall should an elf be?) We began by tracing the little fellows and creating a grid. Next, we decided how big we wanted them to be and made a bigger grid. Thanks to my eighth-grade art teacher, Mrs. Beck, we had a technique! It was much more complex than using a modern day projector or copier but it made for hours of conversation and companionship!


Now, we had patterns for the much bigger wooden ones!


The big grey house. A new home for us and the elves.


At last, each little figure was cut out, painted and ready to put in place on our new home. Danish elves are whimsical, fun-loving little rascals and we had a great time deciding where to hang each comical fellow! Dad got spotlights for the front yard so we could really show them off. We were so proud of our project! My younger brothers, my baby sister and our mom thought they made it the best Christmas ever!


The only remaining evidence of that holiday is a couple of grainy snapshots like the one I shared with you on Monday.  And then, in April of 1967, our daddy died.


But elves live forever


“Christmas is a time when you get homesick — even when you’re home.” ~Carol Nelson


Christmas would never be quite the same but over the years, we found a way to display the happy little guys. When our mom remarried, the elves moved along to another new home and continued to be part of our yuletide traditions. I’m ashamed to admit I had forgotten most of the details of that memorable project. A teenage brain can do that.


Years later, when Mom moved to a retirement home, the elves were divided among us. The rolled-up patterns we almost didn’t find in her basement ended up with me and for a while, it appeared that was the end of the story!


Nope! Hold it right there! Brother Stan took the roll home to Ohio, copied them for “someday” and returned the originals. His talented wife Carol had a different idea! She never knew our dad but always loved the elves and this Christmas, she recreated the entire set! Now, 50 years later, the new family of elves is making smiles on the faces of a whole new generation! (And getting lots of attention on Facebook this time around!)





“When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things — not the great occasions — give off the greatest glow of happiness.” ~Bob Hope

A gift from an elf


Is the gift I want to share with you! When I unrolled the patterns Dad and I had drawn with a #2 pencil over 50 years ago, it took me back to that fall and our big detached garage where we worked our magic with plywood and paint.


The paper hasn’t yellowed and the pencil lines are still crisp and dark. My dad’s precise letters and numbers like he made them on his architectural drawings remain clear and bright. Scribbled across the patterns, I see my own young handwriting noting color placement. It doesn’t look much different today than it did back then. When I saw the little note I wrote, “Hiya, Daddy”, it brought tears to my eyes.


Memories flooded over me and long forgotten emotions poured out. I didn’t need photos, I had pictures in my heart. I didn’t need videos, I could see us laughing and painting in my mind. The weathered wooden elves we hang on our home every Christmas tell a tale of years gone by but the story is still very much alive.


More elf and less self?


Maybe we put too much emphasis on getting everything recorded and documented for posterity. Maybe colors are just as bright, maybe the feelings are every bit as vivid in our memory as on the pages of a scrapbook.


It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the things we do today that will be remembered when another fifty years has come and gone? I promise you this much  What you choose and what you do will make a difference and will live on. Love lasts.


See life with new eyes and I’ll see you next week!






  • Gail

    Those elves are responsible for lost keys (dark elves), surprising joys (light elves)! So glad this project happened and gave so many such joy!

    December 7, 2017 at 8:08 am
  • Susan Streich

    What an inspirational, joyful post, Betty. Thank you so much for sharing.

    December 7, 2017 at 9:11 am
  • Stan Lindholm

    I think even if our father had known how soon he’d be gone, he still would have done this project with you. Thanks for telling the story.

    December 7, 2017 at 11:10 am
  • Cindy Jacobs

    Love this story!!

    December 7, 2017 at 12:06 pm
  • Mai Nguyen

    Beautiful story Betty! I love that the tradition still lives on!

    December 19, 2019 at 8:15 am
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