Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Everybody knows that Santa Claus has elves that live with him at the North Pole and help make toys in his workshop.  But a long time ago, when Santa went by names like Father Christmas or Sinterklaas, he didn't have any elves to help him out.  I don't know how he got all the toys made back in those days, but I guess he managed somehow.

Then in 1856, Louisa May Alcott wrote a book called Christmas Elves.  Except that this book was never published, so I'm not sure how the idea of elves helping Santa at Christmastime caught on.  Earlier, in 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem called A Visit from St. Nicholas, in which he called Santa himself "a right jolly old elf."  In this poem, Santa had flying reindeer to help him out, but nothing was said about a workshop or elves.

Artwork 1881.  I couldn't find the artist's name anyplace.

In 1873, Godey's Lady's Book, which was a popular magazine for women, had a cover engraving of Santa, with a bunch of elves busy making toys.  The caption said, "Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time."

A Tomte
The idea for the Christmas elf probably came from a character in Scandinavian folklore.  He was called a Tomte in Sweden, and a Nisse in Norway and Denmark.  The Tomte was usually about three feet tall, had a long white beard and wore colorful clothes.  He would live secretly in a family's house and keep bad things from happening to children and animals.  He might help with chores or farm work, but he had a bad temper, so you had to be careful not to offend him.  If you did, he might play tricks on you or kill your livestock.

The Tomte delivered gifts through the door, and if you ask me, this makes lots more sense than bringing them down the chimney.  Families would leave a bowl of porridge with butter out for the Tomte to eat when he brought the gifts.

The Christmas Magazine
For Big and Small Children

John Bauer, 1910

Before the Tomte, Christmas presents used to be delivered by the Yule Goat.  Often a male member of the family would dress up as a goat and bring the presents to the house.  The main reminder of this tradition now is those little straw goat ornaments that Scandinavians put on their Christmas trees.

But anyway, Santa's elves came from the Scandinavian traditions and also from the elves of Germanic and British folklore.  The European elves were usually thought to be tiny creatures that were immortal and who had magical powers.  They could be male or female.  In pagan times, people believed that elves guarded their homes from evil.  If you treated them nicely, the elves would be good to you, but if you were mean to them, they would play tricks on you.  They could also give you nightmares by sitting on your head while you were sleeping.  The English word elf came from the Old English aelf.  This word was used to make the words aelfadl ("nightmare") and aelfsogoõa ("hiccup"), both of which were supposedly caused by elves.

Modern elves are much nicer.  They are little people who wear green or red outfits.  They have pointed ears and wear pointy hats and shoes with curled-up toes.  Their jobs include designing and making toys, taking care of Santa's reindeer, and keeping the sleigh in good shape.  Also, they help Santa keep his naughty-or-nice list up to date, and they guard the secret location of Santa's village.

I think Santa must be very happy to have this workforce that he can delegate lots of jobs to.  With the elves taking care of so many things, Santa can save up all his energy for Christmas Eve, when he has to deliver all those millions of gifts to all those millions of children!


  1. Dear Piper,

    I enjoyed your Christmas information. This is my mom's favorite Christmas story:
    I'm not sure if it is "politically correct", but mom says it's very funny.
    this one is shorter, but has better visuals:

    I have been very busy as I got a new brother for Christmas. It is not what I asked for, but he's okay and he makes mom happy. Mom said she couldn't get another basenji boy so soon after Digital the brindlewonderkid's passing, so she got a brindle silken windhound, so he's kind of funny looking and has a very long tail that won't curl. I had to teach him all about Bronco's football on Sunday. I taught him to run, pass, tackle and do a cool fake out. I'm a very good big sister.

    --Zest! superstar at being a sibling

    1. Dear Zest!

      I did not have time to listen to the David Sedaris story last night, but Mom and I listened to the long version just now, and we thought it was very funny. I don't think I would want to live in the Netherlands, though. Their Santa and his "friends" sound kind of scary. It's better just to have little elves, if you want my opinion.

      It's exciting that you got a new brother! I had to look up silken windhound to make sure I knew what they look like, which I mostly did. I see that you can get black-and-white ones, and I think that's the color your mom should have gotten because that's the color I am! But brindle is a pretty good second choice. I'm glad you are such a good big sister. Little brothers can be a pain in the butt sometimes, which is what my little brother Tristan likes to be!

      Your friend, Piper