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Elves: Tricksters, Yule Lads and
Santa’s Helpers
By Lauren Halvorsen

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Nisse (gnome). Created by Jean-noël Lafargue. Source:
Wikipedia Commons.

In our current culture, elves are commonly defined as loyal North Pole denizens, staples in modern fantasy literature (The Lord of the Rings), or titular characters in Will Ferrell movies, but elfin history spans centuries.

Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall. We traditionally do this in my family by driving around the parking lot until we see a shopper emerge from the mall, then we follow her, in very much the same spirit as the Three Wise Men, who 2,000 years ago followed a star, week after week, until it led them to a parking space.  – American humorist Dave Barry

First appearing in Norse mythology as minor fertility deities, elves later became prominent fixtures in European folklore. According to Germanic legend, elves were vicious tricksters responsible both for diseases and nightmares experienced by people and animals. One of the German translations for the word ‘nightmare’, albadruck, means “elf-pressure”, derived from the fear that bad dreams were the result of an elf sitting on a sleeping man’s chest. In Scandinavian folklore, elves were shown as generally light-hearted and harmless unless offended. In the song “Sir Olaf and the Elve-Dance”, a recently married man refuses an elfin queen’s offer to dance, and he dies from a disease she inflicts upon him. His young wife subsequently dies from a broken heart. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Elf of the Rose” portrays a gentle, rose-dwelling elf that witnesses a murder and then commands jasmine flower spirits to poison the killer.


"Christmas at my house is always at least six or seven times more pleasant than anywhere else. We start drinking early. And while everyone else is seeing only one Santa Claus, we’ll be seeing six or seven.” – W.C. Fields
Poor Little Birdie Teased. Created by Richard Doyle. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit
– American cartoonist Kin Hubbard

  Poor Little Birdie Teased. Created by Richard Doyle. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Despite these unflattering representations, Scandinavian writers eventually introduced elves in to Christmas lore. Viktor Rydberg’s 1871 story “Little Vigg’s Adventure’s on Christmas Eve” depicts a young boy accompanying a tomte (a small, benevolent elf-like creature), as he helps distribute gifts to children across the countryside. The concept of elf as Santa’s helper soon spread to other countries: In Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, elves became known as “yule lads”, who would visit and play tricks on the inhabitants of a home, leaving behind presents in their wake. In the United States, Christmas elves have evolved into impishly devoted, year-round toy-makers, a vast difference from their earlier depictions.    

I do like Christmas on the whole…. In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.” – British novelist E.M. Forster
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