Where did Christmas elves come from?


We’re coming up on two of the five biggest shopping mall weekends in the U.S. annually, and at this time of year, the whole Santa’s Workshop / Ms. Claus / elves thing is in full throttle at a lot of ’em. Modern Family actually just had what was probably its best episode of the season this week around these themes. But where the hell do elves come from, conceptually?

It’s vaguely interesting. In 1850, Louisa May Aloctt (yep, from Little Women fame) completed, but never published, a book called Christmas Elves. (That would have pre-dated Little Women by nearly two decades.) In 1822, actually (almost 30 years before Alcott’s story), Clement Moore had actually referred to Santa as “a right jolly old elf,” which is where the entire ball might have started rolling. (Clement Moore wrote “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” FYI.)

The idea of the elf workshop, though, came from Godey’s Lady’s Book, a monthly magazine published out of Philly that might have been the most successful magazine of the 1860s. It’s probably best known for being the magazine whose editorial space helped create the idea of Thanksgiving, but it was also one of the most forward-thinking magazines of its time — while it had content for both men and women, they would dedicate three issues a year to content produced by, and involving, only women (this was basically the origin of “special issues”), and every issue contained sheet music for a new polka or waltz. While there are numerous cultural interpretations of the idea of an “elf” or a Santa’s helper, the workshop idea comes from illustrations initially in Godey’s Lady’s Book. (You can see some content from the issues here, FYI.)

If you’re into the broader idea of elves, you can thank Scandinavia. The idea evolved from pagan belief in that area that elves were house gnomes who guarded their places of residence from evil. This all led to a moderate controversy in the 1920s regarding where Santa, Ms. Claus, and the elves actually live; you see, reindeer don’t live at the North Pole, but there’s a lot of reindeer in Lapland, Finland — so there was a belief that Santa and company must really be based there. Commercialism ran with that, and now there’s a big Santa’s Village up there.Here’s the base distribution of reindeer in the world, if you’re trying to solve the Santa location mystery ala Meghyn Kelly:


According to this website with classic 1990s graphics, elves do not die. That’s good to know.

And because what better way to end this post then ….

Ted Bauer

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