Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922
Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.
The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves. The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:
“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”
The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878. The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools. In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants. Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).
A jultomte & horse
A tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous. However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock. The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity. (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)
As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia. It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).
Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.
In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström. She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.
Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.
Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’ This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert). The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.
Disney and since
In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition. The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine. Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes. An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary. There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.
There’s also an article on the subject of julenisse on The fairy page blog.