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Contemporary Christmas lore suggests that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, accompanied by a band of elves. These elves staff Santa's workshop, manufacturing the millions of toys Santa brings to children at Christmas time. What exactly are elves and how did they become associated with Santa Claus and the celebration of Christmas?

Elves and Fairies

Folk descriptions of a magical and mostly invisible race of beings can be found in the lore of peoples from all parts of the globe. This belief was particularly common among the peoples of Europe and Asia. In Europe these beings were known by many names. Folklorists often refer to them as "fairies," a common English term for these creatures. Some trace belief in fairies back to the ancient Romans and their legends about the deities known as the "Three Fates." Indeed, some folklorists locate the origins of the English word "fairy" in the Latin word for "fate," fatum. Eventually, the Three Fates evolved into spirits known as fata in Italian and fada in Spanish. These beings hovered about babies at the time of their births, bestowing upon them strengths, weaknesses, and destinies. In French-speaking areas, however, these magical creatures were called fée, a word some experts link to the Old French verb for "enchant," féer. The English adopted the French term for these creatures, translating it as "fay," or later, "fairy."

Ireland and the British Isles were particularly rich in fairy folklore. A multitude of names arose for these magical beings. The Irish knew them as the Síde, or "people of the hills"; the Welsh called them Tylwyth Teg, the "fair family"; and the Scottish talked of two distinct groups - the Seelie (blessed) Court and the Unseelie (unblessed) Court. Other names for them included the Little People, the Good Folk, the Gentry, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, pixies, and brownies. English speakers might also have referred to these beings as elves. The word "elf" came into English from the Nordic and Teutonic languages, apparently arriving in England when Scandinavian peoples invaded in the Middle Ages. The beings known to the English as fairies were called alfar in Scandinavia, a word that evokes mountains and water. The English incorporated this word into their own language as "elf."

Fairy folklore taught that, although these magical creatures inhabited the natural world all around us, they often chose to remain invisible. When visible, they frequently appeared in human form. They could, however, take the shape of a flower, a flame, a bird, a jewel, a woodland animal, or any other element of the natural world. Folk beliefs advised people to tread warily if they sensed that these magical and unpredictable creatures were about. On the one hand, elves and fairies often used their powers to aid humans, for example, by providing gifts of food or toys for children, or by breaking evil enchantments. On the other hand, if provoked they could just as easily harm humans. They sometimes stole human children, ruined crops, and caused household accidents.

European Christmas Elves

The folklore of many European countries warned that spirits of all kinds were particularly active during the Twelve Days of Christmas. British folklore cautioned that fairies and the Will O' the Wisp haunted these long, dark nights. The famous English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) disagreed, however. The following lines from the play Hamlet voice his dissenting opinion:

Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long: And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, Nor fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm; So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

The Scandinavians did not share Shakespeare's sentiments. Their lore reminded them that the arrival of the Christmas season awakened the Jultomten (also known as the Julnissen, Julenissen, or Joulutonttuja). Every homestead hosted at least one of these elf-like creatures. They slept and hid in dark corners for most of the year, but became bold and merry around Christmas time. In fact, they expected householders to provide them with good cheer on Christmas Eve. If the family neglected to leave out an offering of food before going to bed, the Jultomten might curdle the milk or cause other household mishaps. In Sweden, Norway, and Finland these elves eventually evolved into Christmas gift bringers, a role they still carry out today. In Iceland prankster elves known as the Christmas Lads vex householders at Christmas time.

American Christmas Elves

These European traditions may have influenced the creation of the American Santa Claus, his workshop, and his elven helpers. This vision of Santa's world was constructed in large part by two men over a century ago: classics professor Clement C. Moore (1779-1863) and illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902). In the early nineteenth century Moore, a professor at General Theological Seminary, scribbled down a little Christmas poem for children. Titled "A Visit From St. Nicholas," it described the nocturnal activities of the Christmas gift bringer who would later be known as Santa Claus. This description depicted Santa Claus as a "jolly old elf" who arrives in a "miniature sleigh." Moore's vision of Santa Claus, which had already begun to shape the American public's image of Santa Claus, was further refined by those who followed. Although Thomas Nast was not the first writer or illustrator to place Santa in the company of a band of elves, he was the most influential. In the late nineteenth century Nast published a series of cartoons that elaborated on the image of Santa Claus established by Moore. Nast enlarged Santa to human size and gave him a home, the North Pole. He retained the connection between Santa Claus and elves, however, by depicting them as Santa's labor force.

Whereas the elves of traditional European folklore whiled away the hours dancing in moonlit meadows and sleeping under the stairs, Santa's elves busied themselves in his workshop all year round. Clearly Nast's elves emerged from the imagination of an industrial age, unlike their older, European counterparts. Nevertheless, the fact that both Nast and Moore included references to elves in their creations may well reflect the influence of northern European folklore associating Christmas time with the activities of elves. The American people may have embraced yet another element of European elf lore in their Christmas celebrations. The American custom of leaving a snack of cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve closely resembles the Scandinavian practice of placating the Jultomten. In any case, Nast's vision of Santa and his North Pole workshop gained widespread acceptance in the United States. As Santa Claus became an international folk figure, so, too, did Santa's helpers and yearlong companions, the North Pole elves.

Further Reading

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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