Around this time of year, all eyes are on the North Pole. As any child well-versed in Christmas lore will inform you, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, where he is assisted by elves that, among other things, make all of the toys. These elves (sometimes found on shelves) are often depicted as wearing red and green clothing, having pointy, oversized ears, and donning pointy hats. We know this because of, well, literature, tradition, and pop culture, but what about elves and the word elf? Moreover, how did they come to be associated with Christmas?
Coming from the Old English ælf and comparable to the Old Germanic alp as well as the Old Norse alfr, our world has its origins in the Pre Indo-European base albho-, which means ‘white’. A product of Germanic mythology/folklore, elves are defined as supernatural beings who possess uncharacteristic beauty and formidable magic powers which they can use to help or harm humans.
First mentioned in the epic Old English story, Beowulf, elves are described as being a product of Cain’s murder of Abel, stating: “thence unspeakable offspring all awoke: ogres and elves and spirits from the underworld.” Moreover, other Old English sources, such as Bald’s Leechbook (late 9th century) and Lacnunga/Remedies (late 10th/early 11th centuries), mention that elves may cause illness for humans and livestock, typically taking the form of sharp internal pains and mental disorders.
Moving forward to the time of Henry VIII, John Palsgrave, a priest, author, and tutor in the royal household, wrote in L’esclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530), his book on French grammar: “Elf or dwarf, nain.”, equating an elf with being a diminutive or small being.
Further explaining the nature of the elf by transferring the quality to people, playwright Nicholas Udall used the term to mean tricksy, mischievous, and sometimes malicious (such as in the manner of an elf) in his 1550s work, Ralph Roister Doister, lamenting that: “Women be all such mad pious elves.”
Considering that elves were typically seen as supernatural, magic, somewhat malicious, it’s difficult to see how they would fit in with Christmas, but, like many of our traditions, elves are a hodge-podge of several different aspects. Beginning with the Reformation, elves gradually dropped their devious traditional identity and adopted a friendlier, romanticized one, as can be seen in Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene (1590) and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), thus giving them more appeal.
The “image” that we have come to associate with a Christmas elf is a variation of the early 19th century Swedish Tomte and/or the Danish Nisse. In writing, the first uses come from the United States, with the use of the term involving Santa and Christmas coming from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, (“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”), while the idea of elves making toys at the North Pole dates back to a December 26, 1857 edition of Harper’s Weekly, which, in a poem called The Wonders of Santa Claus, states that Santa: “keeps a great many elves at work/ 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.”