Elves are meant to be supporting players in the story of Christmas, but in the 21st century, they’ve stolen the show. Santa’s helpers now star in hit movies, decorate our ugly holiday sweaters, and spy on us from our shelves. Unlike Santa Claus—a.k.a. St. Nicholas—elves don’t have early analogues in Christianity. So how did the industrious sprites come to be associated with Christmas?
Naughty and Nice
If you don’t picture tiny toymakers at the North Pole when you talk about elves, you may think of woodland creatures from European fairytales. The English word elf derives from the álfar from Ancient Norse mythology. These folkloric figures predate the Christmas characters by several hundred years.
Though the álfar are often cited as history’s first elves, they varied significantly from the magical fellows we know today. They didn’t build shoes or toys while wearing pointy hats. Nordic elves weren’t even short, necessarily. The alternative name for álfar was huldufólk, or “hidden folk,” and they were believed to occupy the unseen realm between worlds. Beyond that, there wasn’t a solid set of characteristics defining the creatures across myths. The Ancient Nordic people probably pictured them looking similar to humans.
Legends of human-like creatures that lived just out of sight in the shadows of our world soon spread through pre-Christian Europe. In Scotland, there were brownies—tiny beings that would either do your chores or make your house messier, depending on their mood. German kobolds similarly alternated between being helpful and impish, as did Swedish tomte.
A Literary Legend
In “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” the Brothers Grimm paint these stereotypically mischievous creatures in a positive light. The fairytale from 1812 follows a poor cobbler struggling to finish his work before Christmas. His business is saved by altruistic elves who visit his shop at night and make his shoes for him while he sleeps. Though Santa Claus doesn’t make an appearance, this story may be the first depiction in pop culture of elves in a workshop during the holiday season.
Not long after that story’s publication came one of the most influential poems on the modern Christmas myth. The 1823 work A Visit from St. Nicholas—or 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, as it’s more commonly known—helped shape the image of Santa Claus and the tradition of gift-giving on Christmas. It also refers to St. Nick as a “jolly old elf”—a line that tied the magical beings to the holiday.
More than 30 years later, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott wrote a short story collection titled Christmas Elves. Though some credit her with the invention of the “Santa’s helpers” legend, this claim is impossible to prove: Christmas Elves was never published and the manuscript is lost to time, which means scholars know little about it beyond the title.
A 1857 poem published in Harper’s Weekly likely did more to solidify the image of Christmas elves in pop culture. Titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” it tells of a team of elves “all working with all their might/To make a million of pretty things/Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys/To fill the stockings, hung up you know/By the little girls and boys.” By the early 20th century, the concept of hardworking Christmas elves was mainstream enough to be reproduced by Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney.
To many kids today, Christmas elves are as recognizable as Santa Claus himself. They’re often dressed in fur-trimmed costumes with pointy hats and gold-buckled belts—a look popularized by Rankin/Bass’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and recreated in Elf (2003). Buddy the Elf’s wardrobe came so close to the animated television special that the production team had to secure special legal permission to use it.
Movies aren’t the only places these characters pop up. Watch enough commercials or visit enough department stores this time of year and you’re likely to spot them. These elves are more wholesome than the original creatures from ancient folklore, but they haven’t lost their mischievous nature altogether. Just ask a family whose home is at the mercy of Elf on a Shelf throughout the month of December.