Uncertain, lost in fantasy and popular tales, is the concept of Christmas elves.
Most modern folks think of elves as Santa’s helpers, often in the form of little people who work at the North Pole busily making toys for good children all over the world. But these elves are a relative recent invention, a creation from 19th century minds full of fantasy.
Actually, elves have their origins deeply staked in ancient mythology and their history, unlike St. Nicholas, is completely lacking any relation to religion, deity or the divine. Most elves with ancient origins come from Scandinavian folklore and they are downright naughty, if not outright evil and creepy.
However, why the elf tradition became part of Christmas is almost a mystery.
Centuries ago, in the pagan times, Scandinavian people believed that elves are “house gnomes” who guarded their homes against evil. If you were good, the elves were good to you, but if you were bad, they would play tricks on you. Apparently, although these gnomes mostly were benevolent, they could quickly turn nasty when not properly treated. Some of the tricks they enjoyed playing were giving you nightmares by sitting on your head while you were dreaming, tangling your hair as you slept, making your milk turn sour, or stealing your sausages.
These traditions come from seasonal celebrations wherein good luck and rich harvests were celebrated during the winter solstice. The winter was considered in the centuries before Christ as times of misfortune, bad luck, death and destruction and, If good things happened, gods and elves of fortune had visited to display their approval.
Unlike most traditional gift bringers such as Father Christmas, Odin, or the Yule Goat, elves were known in fact for their mischievous nature.
In any case, centuries of elf tradition inevitably merged with the traditions of Christmas as Santa was assigned a sidekick in some societies, such as Black Peter, in the Netherlands, or Krampus, in the alpine countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland while, from Iceland comes the tradition of the Yule Lads, a group of thirteen elves born of local folklore steeped in all manner of elf characters. These 13 characters come each night in the 13 days leading up to Christmas Eve and on current days they are more like Santa Claus than evil-doers, benevolently bringing gifts to good children.
The association of Santa Claus with elves could well come from the phrasing of his description in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, where Clement Moore called St. Nick a “right jolly old elf” and described his sleigh as being pulled by eight reindeer.
The poem inspired generations of 19th century artists such as Thomas Nast, the man behind the modern figure of Santa Claus, but he also fired the imaginations of other writers and poets. Louisa May Alcott, for istance, later wrote a book that was called “Christmas Elves”, while a popular publication of the times, Godey’s Ladies Book, published art work featuring Santa and his tiny helpers.
Other artists completed the picture of elves for us.
In addition to help Santa design and make the wonderful toys he brings to children, they were said to have other duties as well, like take care of Santa’s reindeer and keep his sleigh in good condition, ready to fly through the skies on Christmas Eve, while others guard the secret location of Santa’s village. Elves also make sudden appearances in the days before Christmas, to keep an eye on each children and see which of them are behaving well and obeying their parents. Children who are unkind and misbehave have their names added to the naughty list and may wake up Christmas morning to find their filled with lumps of coal or bundles of twigs, depending your culture.
At one stage it was thought that the elves live in Santa’s village in North Pole. However, in 1925 it was discovered that there are no reindeer in the North Pole but there are lots in Lapland, Finland. Since reindeers draw the sleigh of Santa Claus, he must be living in an area where there are large number of these animals available and so, since then, it is believed that there is a secret village somewhere in Lapland where he and his team of elves live.
The late 19th century and early 20th century media explosion fueled the popularity of elves and still today, movies, television and song all add to the ongoing Christmas morphing of these characters, popular especially with kids. Today, in fact, elves associated with Christmas are symbols to remind children to be good and not naughty…