ATLANTA — There is one hot item this holiday season that won't be resting under the Christmas tree. It will be on a shelf — watching you.
In a few short years, the "Elf on the Shelf" picture book and accompanying elf doll has been transformed from a phenomenon known mostly around the Atlanta area to a national sensation sold in 12,000 stores.
For parents, the elf is an adorable yuletide enforcer. They ensure he pops up in a different place each morning to watch over children and ensure they are not naughty, but nice.
Carol Aebersold and her daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts, creators of "Elf on the Shelf," say it has its roots in their family tradition dating to the 1970s. An elf would appear every year after Thanksgiving only to vanish each evening, the children were told, on a journey to the North Pole with reports for Santa on who had dared to pout, misbehave or cry.
In 2005, Aebersold and Bell wrote the book to encourage others to adopt the tradition in their families. All major publishers rejected it.
Undeterred, the family founded CCA and B Publishing in Marietta, Ga., to put out the $30 book and the 10-inch elf doll by themselves.
Some think its sweet, and some think it's just creepy. Undisputed: It's been a massive success since the company's founding in 2005.
About 2.5 million have been sold to date. And this year, it reached No. 2 on USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. It sold out at Target stores in the first year the chain carried it.
Last month, on a nationally televised special on the day after Thanksgiving, 4.2 million viewers tuned in to watch "Elf on the Shelf: An Elf's Story," on CBS, according to Nielsen.
It's become a social media darling, too.
Elf on the Shelf has 7,564 (and counting) Twitter followers and 92,545 friends on Facebook. There are blogs about where to place it in the house, a different spot every morning, and how to dress it up.
"We have seen the sales of The Elf grow every year since 2008," Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating said. "It is wildly popular with our customers."
CCA and B Publishing has had at least double-digit sales increases every year since 2008. The company has grown from three employees to 25 and recorded $10 million in revenue last year.
"We used to have to stop people in the aisles at retail shows and explain what this was," said Christa Pitts. This year, at book signings, "people are coming in and they already know. It's taken on a much more mainstream relevance and awareness that has been really thrilling to see."
No one can quite put their finger on why sales of an elf, with the accompanying book, have been so strong.
Timetoplaymag.com toy expert Jim Silver posits that Elf on the Shelf has filled a previously untapped niche.
"For all the years we've talked about Santa Claus, elves have never gotten their due with kids," Silver said.
Books and toys associated with the 2003 Will Ferrell movie "Elf," sold well, he said, but there haven't been many elf-themed toys since then.
"Seeing how the movie 'Elf' did, we knew there was a market there, so it was just a matter of time before a company came along to capitalize on Santa's helpers."
Will it join the compendium of American holiday traditions? It is hard to say. Not everyone is a fan. There's a parody book called "Elf OFF the Shelf" from Adams Media. Some critics say it promotes spy tactics that might not be healthy for children, a claim Bell dismisses as coming from people who have never actually "experienced the Elf."
But Elf on the Shelf has clearly surpassed its status as local curiosity and become a must-have for millions of people.
"It's a fun, innocent tradition," said Warren Haynes, from LaGrange, Ga. He says his 3-year-old sleeps better knowing his elf, which they named Posie, "is going to tell Santa what a good boy he has been."