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When we think of elves, we think of red pointed hats, rosy cheeks, and bright green tunics. Chipper and merry, these elves spend their time making toys in Santa’s snowy workshop, singing songs, or serving as the Naughty List police!
Our 21st-century Christmas elves are jolly and cutesy, and rightly so. Their infectious cheeriness lends itself perfectly to the warm-hearted spirit of the season as we know it. However, if we lift the jolly red hat, we can see that the Christmas Elf is an amalgam of characters, a mix of myths that have passed through the ages. Join us for a deep dive into these cheery Christmas characters to see how they made their way into the heart and soul of the season.
The origin of the word ‘elf’ itself is still heavily disputed, appearing in different forms in the Germanic languages. These early elves are the ælf or ‘white beings’, creatures with magic powers able to help or hinder those they meet.
Even the names of famous figures from this period hint at the prevalence of elves in people’s minds. Old English gives us plenty of examples of names like Ælfwine (‘elf-friend’), Ælfric (‘elf-powerful’), and Ælfweard (‘elf-guardian’). Even some modern English names carry this tradition today, with the surname Elgar (Ælfgar, ‘elf-spear’) and the first name Alfred (Ælfred, ‘elf-advice’).
Scandinavia also had a mythological creature during this period that would later influence the Christmas Elf in the form of the Danish ‘nisse’ or ‘tomte’ in Sweden. These spirits took the form of a small, old man - similar to a gnome - who would protect a farmstead from misfortune in exchange for the occasional gift.
As Europe was Christianised, these early myths of elves and tomte were lumped together as superstition by the clergy, given scholarly treatment by monks, or incorporated into songs. Most folk tales of magical beings were seen through this Christian lens, with elves joining other magical creatures as ill-omened servants of evil forces. No Christmas elves to be found just yet, but things were certainly looking up for their public image once the Romantics got a hold of them.
At the end of the 18th Century, Europe emerged with a renewed interest in ‘folk art’ and ancient themes, including supernatural beings like elves. In this period, what we consider elves, fairies, and other traditional European folk characters began to take their familiar shape. When Victorian England went through its Germanic Christmas revival, we saw our ‘traditional Christmas’ roots emerge.
It was the 19th century when these influences started forming our beloved Christmas Elves. The 1823 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ characterised Santa as ‘a right jolly elf’ and gave him his team of reindeer. American cartoonists and illustrators soon depicted a Christmas Elf in this period, giving them their role as Santa’s helpers in the North Pole. Likewise, the Scandinavian tomte was shown to wear bright red hats by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström. These red-capped, white-haired figures would later remerge as another Scandinavian import back into Christmas, in the form of the Gonk!
Looking at our elves now, we can see where they gather all the historical influences, from the ancient ælf and tomte of pre-Christian Europe to the cheery toymaking elves of today.
So, celebrate the elf this Christmas! They've been through some thousand years of history at least, so they deserve their spot at the heart of the holiday. Hang the holly, tinsel the tree, and look at collecting a Christmas cast of your own.