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."
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!