Hard as it is to believe, Santa Claus did not always have elves for sidekicks. That tradition came from 19th century Scandinavia and drew on the deeper pagan roots of Northern Europe. Elves, pooka, fairies, and the like were all part of a greater folklore of diminuitive, humanlike creatures that lived alongside humans, often in their own houses, and performed deeds both beneficial (bringing good luck, tidying up) and detrimental (tangling hair as people slept, performing curses.) Often a moral element was involved. Those humans who were good at heart and provided for the elves by leaving out porridge or milk received the perks of the relationship. Those who were bad, or abused the elves, became the target of nasty tricks.
Scandinavian folklore posits there are six Christmas elves at Santa’s hideout, but depictions in modern media often have many more. The TV stop-action special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted in 1964, introduced young viewers to the concept of a whole village of elves caring for Santa’s needs. As in the toys in the photo above, they were childlike creatures who wore red and green, often in striped fabrics, and sported stocking caps with jingle bells on the end. Often they wore shoes with pointy toes that curled up. This depiction carried through to the modern day. When those in the US think “Santa’s elf” this is what they see.
But as with Santa himself, the image of the modern Christmas elf was heavily influenced by American advertisers, specifically Coca-Cola.
These elderly, dour elves gradually became more cute and youthful over the decades, gradually losing their scowls and beards to become the carefree Santa’s helpers of today.
Writing a Christmas story and need the name of a helpful elf? Here are a few.