Forever Diego: A lesson in belief and perseverance

By Lorri Griffin

Diego came to live with us more than seven years ago, when I dove into the unknown world of “Elf on the Shelf.”

My daughter, Makayla, was four and I thought the idea of an elf helping Santa keep tabs of whether she was being “naughty or nice,” was a great idea. I purchased our elf, a pretty-faced, shiny cheeked doll with a glint in her eyes, and prepared for her arrival at our home the day after Thanksgiving. 

Makayla stands with SantaOn Thanksgiving, I read the accompanying book to my daughter and told her that our guest would be arriving that night. The next morning, Makayla awoke and looked for her elf.  She found her safely seated on top of the wall clock, high enough that she would not touch her.

Makayla is on the autism spectrum. And at the age of four, she may be tempted to grab her new friend. The book warns new elf owners that if they touch the elf, she will lose her magic. So the elf was relegated to high locations inaccessible by children or curious dogs who could mistake it for a chew toy.

“She came! She came!” my daughter called, clapping her hands. 

Makayla introduced herself to her elf, and I reminded her about the need to give the elf a new name (per the story book). 

“Diego!” Makayla declared, since Ice Age was her favorite movie at the time. 

“Diego? She’s a girl,” I told her.  “Diego,” my daughter confirmed. 

Diego joined our family that morning and reappeared every morning in a new location, being ever so watchful with that knowing glint in her eyes. Over the years, Makayla became firmly committed to her relationship with her elf. Even when children at school told her, “Your parents buy the elf and they move her around every night,” her belief did not waiver.

This year, being 12, she declared, “I might be too old for Diego and Santa.”  I asked her, “Are you sure?”  She thought for a minute and said with a firm nod of the head, “Maybe one more year.”

So, I decided that this year would be her last. But first, I had to find Diego! 

Part of Thanksgiving preparation is always for me to locate the carefully hidden elf and consider her first hiding place of the year. Nothing too grand, or too dramatic.  Just Diego saying, “I’m baaacck.”  Diego sits in her chair

This year, I looked in the normal hiding spot, but Diego was not there.  I figured I had just placed her in a different spot than I had remembered, so I checked in a second location.  No Diego to be found.  I then thought that maybe I had hidden her at work.  I looked, and still no Diego. That night, I looked again at home in all of the normal hiding places, and then the abnormal hiding places.  Nothing. How could I lose Diego?

Knowing this was Diego’s retirement year, I was torn at the thought of shelling out for a new elf, complete with book and DVD.  However, it had already been several days since Diego’s scheduled arrival, and I knew my daughter was waiting. So off to Target I went, and straight to the elf display.  On the shelf were three boxes, filled with all boy elves. Nothing that could pass as our brown-haired, brown-eyed girl, Diego!

On a mission, I then headed to the book section of the store where I found two boxes.  One boy and one girl.  I triumphantly grabbed the box and opened the flap. There, sitting confidently, was what looked like Diego.  Brown hair – check.  Brown eyes – check.  But stained hat – uncheck!! Although I had not seen Diego in nearly a year, I knew she did not have brick-red markings on the white trim of her hat.  After dropping off the defective elf at guest services, I headed off to another Target where I finally hit a stroke of good luck. I found and purchased Diego’s doppelgänger: mission complete.

Fast forward and “Diego” had been sitting in my daughter’s room for several nights without detection.  She looked very much like Diego.  I even dressed her in a skirt we had purchased for her on her second year with us to help the replacement elf better assume her role as Diego. Playing my cards close to my chest, I wasn’t going to do or say anything to press the issue. Plus, every night my daughter did not see Diego was one less new hiding space I needed to find before Christmas Eve.

Makayla holds Diego on Christmas morningOne morning, Makayla came downstairs with a surprised look on her face.  “Guess what?” she said. “Diego came.” During the next several minutes, my daughter, who is not very talkative, began to share frantically. “I didn’t know she was here. I didn’t even look upstairs! I thought she would be upstairs. She tricked me! Do you think she’s been here all this time? I didn’t know she was here!!” And then the tears came. “I was afraid she wasn’t going to come,” she repeated over and over again. As I watched my daughter, 12 and still believing, overcome with relief, my heart welled.

Diego did come, and here she will stay. On Christmas morning, Makayla awoke to find Diego sitting on top of Santa’s sack, holding a letter from Santa. The letter explained that Diego enjoyed Makayla’s company so much over the years that her only wish for Christmas was to be a “real toy” in the house. As his job entails, Santa made Diego’s wish come true. She is here to stay forever, with Makayla.

I am grateful that I was able to find a replacement Diego for this final year of Elf on a Shelf. Seeing the joy on my daughter’s face as she searched for her elf each morning (and now, as she sleeps with Diego each night) made it all worth it. 

One day I will come upon the original Diego, I’m sure. I will be cleaning out a closet or clearing out storage boxes and there she will be, with those shiny cheeks and that knowing glint in her eyes.  For now, however, a replacement Diego fills her tiny elf shoes, the $30 being a small sacrifice to provide my daughter the joys of sharing her holiday with her long-time scout, Diego. A replacement, yes, but still forever Diego.