The Code of the Elves: A Primer for Joy

By Jake Doberenz

In the 2003 Christmas classic Elf (I think I can call it a classic now), the elves have about perfected a recipe for joy.

Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell and Zoey Deschanel, depicts the elf-raised human Buddy as he ventures into the wild world of New York City. Buddy, raised as an elf to recite and take to heart the Code of the Elves, finds the world unexpectedly joyless. It first starts when a racoon for some reason doesn’t want a hug. Then, when he meets his dad, his dad doesn’t want to go ice skating nor hold hands—and his dad definitely does not appreciate his gift of lingerie. Buddy quickly learns that in the real world, people dress up in suits and go to work and (apparently) drink on the job in the mail room. It’s not really a happy place.

He’s a long way from the bright colors and never-ending joy of the North Pole.

However, Buddy doesn’t abandon his ethics even in this strange world. No matter what happens, Buddy is going to have some fun and spread some Christmas cheer. And this is likely because he knows the Code of the Elves. But more so, he takes to heart the Code of the Elves.

The Code of the Elves is three simple rules:

1.     Treat every day like Christmas. 

2.     There’s room for everyone on the nice list. 

3.     The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

Throughout the movie, Buddy lives out these rules. Each contributes to his unfathomable enthusiasm and excitement. By treating everyday like Christmas, he finds the wonder and magic in each day. By acknowledging that everyone can be on the nice list, he looks for the best in people and really does believe even the worst people (or racoons) can have redemption. And by spreading Christmas cheer through singing, he keeps the joy of Christmas alive for others as well.

A Theology of Joy

There is nothing inherently religious about “joy.” One can have joy no matter what god you worship or even if you don’t worship a god at all. Yet it is a profound mistake to assume that joy is simply another emotion on the spectrum, a combination of neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine. Reducing joy to this level does joy a profound disservice, as artists and writers have known for millennia.

Joy is not just an emotion, but a total tour de force against a negative experience in and of the world. Willie James Jennings provides an intriguing look at the concept of joy. In an interview with Miroslav Volf, he says, “I look at joy as an act of resistance against despair and its forces. … Joy in that regard is a work, that can become a state, that can become a way of life.” [1] Joy transcends happiness in that it takes constant work and becomes a whole lifestyle.

For Jennings, you need three things to cultivate joy. Firstly, you need the right people around you. Jennings suggests that you have to have “conditions set up where those people who have learned to ride the winds of chaos can say to you ‘c’mon, let me show you how to do it.’” Secondly, you need a willingness to “hold on to life” despite whatever troubles arise. Thirdly, you require the right spaces and rituals that produce joy in you. A space of joy is marked by being a place of joyous infection, where the space has claimed you as its own. [2] 

This understanding of joy comes out clearly in the life of Buddy the Elf. His wide-eyed expression and enormous grin come from making the pursuit of joy a lifestyle. As the first rule in the Code of the Elves demands, he treats everyday like Christmas. No day is ordinary. Everyday is meant for magic, wonder, excitement, and joy.

Buddy has many of the conditions for joy that Jennings describes. The North Pole provides both a space for joy and people who are joyful—even if he doesn’t always fit in. When he comes to New York, he makes Gimbels into his space for joy by decorating it during the night. And Buddy certainly has that willingness to hang on no matter his trials and new experiences. He doesn’t stay sad very long, always getting distracted by a joke or finding a happy place. Buddy lives joy. 

Music and Joy

The third rule in the Code proves to be most important in Elf. In the climax of the film, Santa has (conveniently) crashed in New York City. While typically the sleigh flies by the magic of Christmas Spirit fanned by people believing in Santa and Christmas magic, that’s been in short supply. However, the back-up engine is gone. Santa can’t power his sleigh without some Christmas cheer in the air.

Buddy has been touching people’s lives through the whole film. Some he angered, many he made laugh, and a few he radically changed. In the climax, Jovie, the love interest of Buddy, realizes what she must do. Knowing that “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” she sings a Christmas carol in Central Park on camera! Previously she had been shy about singing in public, but Buddy’s joy infected her and inspired her. Thanks to her efforts, and the whole city singing along, Christmas is saved.

While Buddy enjoyed life as an individual and could certainly entertain himself, his joy constantly caused him to engage with other people. Similarly, Jennings proposes the existence of a joy that is found “in between” people rather than a joy that is found in segregated spaces. This joy in between is far more beautiful. In one talk on joy, Jennings remarks, “If joy is a reality of the creature, then joy is always an opportunity to link us in ways only limited by our imaginations.” [3] Joy happens when we get outside of ourselves and invest in others.

In Elf, joy is most quickly spread through music. This is implicit in the Elf code. In our reality, too, music brings great joy. Jennings affirms that music brings enjoyment and the tools to fight despair, an idea in line with many Black theologians. For instance, James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, explains how music helped Blacks resist suffering in the Jim Crow Era. He writes:

“How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? Self-defense and protest were out of the question, but there were other forms of resistance. For most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance. At the juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights blacks affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization. Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.” [4]

Music and religion help a person resist despair, the very process that creates joy. This is not just the reality of the Black Americans that Cone is discussing. It is a universal reality. Music is incorporated in all major religions, humans spend loads of time and money on concerts, and we fill the quiet spots in the day with music—car rides, jogs, and doing the dishes. Music stirs joy in us. The elves know this; we know this. 

Joy that Connects

People throughout history have placed plenty of barriers between us. Jennings notes how Christianity along with many other religions use joy as a survival mechanism, to push back despair. Yet he says joy can do more than this: joy break out of our segregated spaces and join people together. Joy can and perhaps should be found in the mingling of people. 

Jennings chastises Christians for their lack of imagination in what joy can do, like overcoming racial and geographic segregation. As the remedy, Jennings preaches a lesson that Black Christians have long known: “Jesus presents a joy that gathers” [6]. Jesus’ joy draws from the great cloud of witnesses to God’s faithfulness and even more so from the very life of God. Thus, joy ultimately comes from God. He quotes John 15:8-11, which reads:

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (NRSV).

As Jennings notes, “Completed joy suggested in this lovely passage is a joy that connects.” [7] Christian joy finds its completion in Christ, but it’s expression is in how we relate to others—in the fruit we bear. Joy spills into us from God and then out of us into our interactions.

In Elf, Buddy’s joy is constantly bringing people together. Buddy’s joy infects his father, who by the end of the movie forsakes his work to spend time with his family. The elf-human with yellow tights and a taste for candy on spaghetti managed to break barriers with the hardened New Yorker—his joy spread and changed him. 

Yes, it’s just a movie with plenty of fantastical elements. But it draws from human truth about how our demeanor and personality can make a profound impact in our circles. Joy can and should flow into the relationships around us. Joy is capable of so much more than we get it credit for.

Whether joy prompts us to sing, to smile, to decorate, to dance or get into a snowball fight, joy at it’s best connects us to the people around us. Joy breaks down barriers and quite possibly changes the world. The elves were on to something about joy. It’s not an expression just for the individual, but it’s a lifestyle and witness to the world. Will you embrace this kind of joy?

Jake Doberenz is an early career theologian who ministers at a local church and teaches middle schoolers (and has his hands full). He recently graduated with a Master of Theological Studies at Oklahoma Christian University. Jake occasionally blogs at www.JakeDoberenz.com and quite often tweets at @JakeDoberenz. Also check out his Christian entertainment and education company at www.TheophanyMedia.com.

[1] “Theology of Joy: Willie James Jennings with Miroslav Volf” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fKD4Msh3rE)

[2] “Theology of Joy: Willie James Jennings with Miroslav Volf” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fKD4Msh3rE)

[3] “Willie James Jennings on joy that joins” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwiFx_mJAl4&t=3s&mc_cid=44afe186bb&mc_eid=74a53b36b9)

[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 12.

[5] “Theology of Joy: Willie James Jennings with Miroslav Volf” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fKD4Msh3rE)

[6] “Willie James Jennings on joy that joins” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwiFx_mJAl4&t=3s&mc_cid=44afe186bb&mc_eid=74a53b36b9)

[7] “Willie James Jennings on joy that joins” (Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwiFx_mJAl4&t=3s&mc_cid=44afe186bb&mc_eid=74a53b36b9)

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