During Christmas, does one of these little fellas occupy a place in your home? I’ve always had an elf or two either sitting on our mantel, hanging from a light fixture, or perched on a Christmas tree limb.
Have you ever wondered when and where these tiny folks first appeared and how they evolved into cute little creatures dressed in green or red with large, pointy ears and pointy hats?
After doing some research, I found there is a lot of conjecture as to the origin of elves, although most folklorists believe they date back to ancient history. Ancient Norse mythology refers to the ‘alfar’, also know as “hidden folk.” The Scandinavian and Celtic cultures had myths of fairies, elves and nature spirits. Interestingly enough, most folklore of that time depicted elves as more naughty than nice, more mischievous than merry.
The Scandinavians and Celts weren’t the only Europeans who believed in supernatural species. Germans had their dwarves and little sprites called kobolds. Scots had house spirits called brownies.
The word, “elf,” derives from the ancestral language of German and Old English and dates as far back as 500 A.D.
The transition of elf myth to Christmas tradition is difficult to explain. Clearly originating from pagan roots, many countries participated in seasonal celebrations, many of which took place during the winter solstice. Centuries of elf traditions merged with the traditions of Christmas.
The association of Santa Claus with elves could well be linked from the phrasing of Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas.” That poem refers to Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf.”
Godey's Ladies Book
Harper's WeeklyLouisa May Alcott later wrote a book that was called “Christmas Elves” and a popular publication of the times, Godey’s Ladies Book published art work of Santa and his tiny elves. During the 19th Century, many writers were inspired by the elf link to Christmas. In 1857, Harper’s Weekly published a poem called “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which tells of the elves working for Santa and making toys and sugar plums to fill children’s stockings.
In 1922, famed artist Norman Rockwell released his painting of an exhausted Santa surrounded by busy elves finishing a dollhouse in time for Christmas.
Through the decades, movies have depicted elves helping Santa prepare for Christmas, some quite unconventional, such as the "misft" elf named Hermey in 1964’s classic TV special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and in the 2003 movie, “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell.
The trademarked “Elf on a Shelf” started in 2005 when author Carol Aebersold self-published a tale of a little elf sent by Santa to report on children’s behavior leading up to Christmas.
Although Santa Claus will always hold top billing, in the USA, Canada, and Great Britain, diminutive elves clad in green and red also add to the magic of children’s Christmas traditions.