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It’s becoming hard to miss “Elf on the Shelf.” The popular toy, now a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is popping up on store shelves, inspiring Pinterest boards and doubtlessly consuming way too much of parents’ time.

But what you might not know: The elf was invented by three women — a mom and two daughters — who now run a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

elf on a shelfFirst, a little background for the uninitiated. The bright-eyed elf is a scout for Santa and “spies” on kids in order to give a full report of their behavior to the boss in the North Pole. It cannot be touched (that would ruin the magic); it sits still and silent during the day, watching over the house; and it flies to the North Pole and back to a different perch each morning. In fact, the need for daily novelty has spawned more than a few websites and social-media photos.

Behind it all is Carol Aebersold and her twin daughters Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts, who kicked off the craze in 2005 when Carol and Chanda published a book called The Elf on a Shelf Since then, their company, Creatively Classic Activities and Books, based in metro Atlanta, has expanded to a larger franchise. The sisters are co-CEOs, while their mother serves as a managing partner.

[Related: For the Owner of Christmas Milk, Family and Eggnog Makes a Happy Christmas]

Growing the business wasn’t easy; the trio maxed out credit cards and 401(k)s to start publishing, according to this WBIR.com interview. But their gamble paid off: Carol, Chanda and Christa were named 2010 Georgia Small Business Persons of the Year. The business has grown to 70 employees, and 6 million copies of the books have sold in North America. Revenue was $16 million in 2011.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Chanda Bell, in a Bloomberg Enterprise video profile. “This is living the American Dream.”

elf on a shelf creators
Chanda Bell, Carol Aebersold and Christa Pitts

The trio has brought their family tradition into homes across the globe, as well as produced spin-offs including a CBS television special and their next book, Elf on the Shelf’s Birthday Tradition. The toys are available at special “elf adoption centers” at stores around the country, where elf clothes (“Claus Couture”) and related merchandise is also sold.

The Elf on the Shelf has won numerous awards, including Learning Express’s Best Toy of 2008, 2009 and 2010’s Book of the Year from Creative Child Awards, and National Best Books 2008. In 2012 the elf made its debut in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

[Related: Check out our Holiday Gift Guides featuring gift ideas from women-owned businesses.]

Of course, the enthusiastic response to the elf has some feeling more like the Grinch. Fans say it’s a fun way to get in the holiday spirit, and to turn good behavior into a rewarding game for kids. But critics say it’s more of a pain for parents (…we mean North Pole associates) than it’s worth, and one more Pinterest-escalated competition. Worse, they express concern that the elf could encourage behavioral paranoia or general fears of surveillance.

The women behind the elf don’t seem to be bothered by the detractors. The sisters told Bloomberg they hope to become a billion-dollar enterprise, with an elf in every family’s home. “If we stay true to that, the Elf on the Shelf should be every bit a part of Christmas as Santa Claus,” Bell says.

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