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Why Are Elves Associated With Christmas?

Most children know that Santa’s elves are responsible for making toys and keeping track of Santa’s list of good boys and girls. Some children are even visited by a curious little elf who observes their behavior all Christmas season.

But how did elves become such an important part of the Santa story?

The Evolution of Santa Claus

The history of Santa Claus begins with a real person. St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived hundreds of years ago in what is now Turkey. Stories of St. Nick’s kindness and generosity are common throughout Europe. By contrast, his modern counterpart, Santa Claus, is a more recent and largely American invention.

Early immigrants brought their customs and stories to the American melting pot of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the way they celebrated Christmas.

In 1821, a New York City newspaper published a poem by Clement Clarke Moore entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” His story, which drew on Dutch and Scandinavian traditions to envision St. Nicholas’ visit on the night before Christmas, captivated the public imagination. Writers and artists built upon the Santa legend. They added a red suit, a bottomless bag of gifts, a fondness for cookies and milk, and a North Pole toyshop populated by elves.

What Are Elves?

From Greek gods to British pixies, many ancient European folk stories focus on magical beings who sometimes interact with the human world. Unlike the engaging little Christmas elf, however, these supernatural creatures weren’t always kind.

Scandinavian elves were somewhat fickle guardians of a household, protecting the family, farm, livestock and crops. However, if they thought they were being mistreated or ignored, they might act out by souring milk, breaking dishes or even poisoning crops.

Ancient Norse mythology tells of ‘hidden folk” while Scottish lore speaks of tiny beings known as brownies. In most legends, these magical beings might by turns be helpful or pesky.

Even in Willliam Shakespeare’s time, elvish figures like Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were envisioned as tricksters.

Christmas Elves

Since elf lore predates Christianity, elves traditionally weren’t associated with the Christmas holiday. So when and how did elves become part of our Christmas traditions?

Possibly the earliest connection between Christmas and elves appears in “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” by the Brothers Grimm. The 1812 fairy tale tells of a poor shoemaker, visited nightly by elves who help complete his orders before Christmas.

There is also a line in Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” describing Santa as a “jolly old elf.”

“The Christmas Elves,” a story published in “Harper’s Bazaar” in 1871, tells of magical elves who visit good children during the holiday season. Another popular 19th century publication, Godey’s Ladies Book, featured artwork depicting Santa and his elves. Several decades later, artist Norman Rockwell also included elves in some of his famous paintings of Santa.

In the 20th century, marketing and television expanded Santa lore, featuring elves as main characters. From Rudolph’s friend Hermey, to Buddy the Elf, to head elf Bernard in “The Santa Clause,” Santa Claus and elves have become permanently intertwined. 

Santa's Little Helpers

Nowadays, Christmas elves are distinctly different from the magical beings from which they descended. Helpful, thoughtful, fun-loving and hard-working, elves add yet another facet to the Christmas story.

You can add your own Christmas elf to your holiday decor by browsing the Christmas decorations and ornaments at Christmas Central.