Where do Christmas elves come from? I mean, beyond the North Pole

photo-39At the auction yesterday, Jeremy and I bought a box with three bendable elves with an eye for using them on our tree for the Festival of Trees in November 2013.

We’ve written about elves several times, including the popular Elf on the Shelf, but our treasures yesterday got me to wondering about the origins of Christmas elves.

There’s no question that elves are part of ancient mythology, especially stories of Germanic and Scandinavian origin.  They have both a good and bad reputation, dividing along the lines of gnomes (bad) to elves (good).

Elves were not a part of American Christmas tradition until the Victorian era and a Louisa May Alcott Christmas story (unpublished) in 1950. Harper’s Weekly  published a poem, “The Wonders of Santa Claus”  that mentioned Santa’s elves in 1857. I’ve included a link to the curious poem, with illustrations.  Godey’s Lady’s Book, America’s most popular fashion and women’s magazine of the Victorian period, is credited with popularizing many Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree and elves.  An engraving of Santa with his elves was featured on the cover of their 1873 issue.  This photo is of a page from that issue. elf engraving

I’ve included two additional links from elfcrazy.com.  This website is devoted to all things elven, and, while it’s a commercial site selling elf dolls, the information is fun to read and kid-friendly.  One link offers clever names for Santa’s elves and suggestions for naming your own elf.  Check them out. I’m partial to “Pepper Minstix.”  Jeremy has already named our three auction elves–we’ll reveal his most clever idea as we get closer to the Festival of Trees.

Lincoln, Christmas and Apolonia Stuntz’s Toy Store

Last weekend, we had the pleasure of watching Lincoln, Spielberg’s Academy Award nominated movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis.  In addition to learning a a great deal more about Lincoln’s struggles to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and his final days in office, the fine detail of the Lincoln White House, in all of its lack of dignity (compared to today’s White House), was fascinating. Christmas was not yet a national celebration as it was to become a short time later, and, after the death of Lincoln’s son Willie (in February 1862), the Lincolns were even less inclined to celebrate the holiday.

01994a.previewTad Lincoln, the President’s youngest son, by all accounts, appeared regularly in his father’s office and was present during many of his father’s meetings and travels.  Watching the movie, I was fascinated by Tad’s toys, which seemed to be mostly soldiers and maps of battlefields.

Toy soldiers (precursors of the plastic Army men so ubiquitous today that they appear in films like Toy Story) were popular during the 1800’s.  Abraham Lincoln was said to have frequented Apolonia Stuntz’s Toy and Candy store, a small store just a few blocks from the White House.  Apolonia’s husband, Joseph, a veteran of Napoleon’s army, carved some of the soldiers himself.

There’s an excellent video on YouTube created by the Indiana State Museum describing these soldiers and other playthings from the White House.

Robert Sivard, who was a popular painter in the mid-1900’s, painted this version of the Stuntz Toy Shop, which includes the image of Abraham Lincoln shopping inside the store.  The small store is no FAO Schwartz (except for the New York Avenue address), but it’s sad to learn that the building became a dry cleaner in the early 1900’s and was then destroyed to make way for more modern buildings.  Here’s a link to a Washington Times article about the store and its connection to Lincoln.

Toy soldiers like the ones Tad played with then, have given way to

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Must Have Toys

The Christmas season regularly brings about some must-have toy of the season.  This is THE toy that everyone wants.  The supply is much lower than the demand.  People become crazed with desperation to secure the item for Santa to bring home to their child and entrepreneurs scoop them up to resell at huge profit.  This isn’t usually the toy that was expected to well or advertised as the one to have.  It takes on a life of its own and might end with parents camped out at stores, searching the newspaper (Craigslist now), or hoping to win one in a raffle.  Let’s look back at some of the biggest must-haves from the past.

The craze for toys isn’t just a recent phenomenon.  The first rush came in 1934 for the Shirley Temple Doll.  Parents rushed to department stores to get this doll for their daughters.  In 1960 the rush was on for a Chatty Cathy Doll.  This classic beauty had a phonograph inside and spoke 11 different phrases  1964 had the first big must have toy for the boy, G.I. Joe.  These inexpensive figures were on every little boys wish list, and difficult to find.  Figurines were again a sought after gift in 1977 for the film Star Wars.  Kids of all ages had to have their own posable Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker.

What probably comes to your mind is the more recent crazes.  Remember Cabbage Patch Dolls?  These individually named little gems were flying off the shelves in 1983.  Fights broke out at the mall and black market dolls went for thousands of dollars.  In 1984 the shelves were stripped bare again but now for Transformers figures.  These robots in disguise were different from any toy before and store couldn’t keep them in stock.  If you wanted to be the popular kid on December 26th in 1985, you would have opened a Teddy Ruxpin the day before.  These story-telling bears sold for $68 dollars in the store if you could find one.  The average price for resale in newspaper ads was about $200.  In the 90s the dolls again were all the excitement.  Christmas ’96 found everyone lined up to get one of the new animated Tickle Me Elmos.  In 1998 over a million lucky parents purchased a Furby doll.  These weird-looking little alien creatures spoke their own language and slowly learned to speak English.  That million Furbys were all there were.  In the years after that first burst of demand saw more than 14 million sold.  Being the must have toy at Christmas this year can mean many future years of profit for a toymaker, contrary to what the “experts” tell us.  All the predictions in 2006 said that PlayStation 3 was going to be what all Christmas shoppers would want. But it was the Nintendo Wii that families lined-up for in the middle of the night.

2012 will likely have some break-out hit that everyone will be rushing to find.  Hopefully you get in on the rush early and make a child happy, or turn a tidy profit.  British super toy store Hamley’s published its 2012 Must-Have Toy List back in July.  Wonder how many of their selections will turn out to be hits or maybe become THE toy of the year.

Sears Wish Book Celebrates 60th Anniversary

Roger and I were talking today about Christmases past, and he reminded me that Christmas shopping for us as children was a tour through the Sears Wishbook.  Both of us remember studying the advertisements and turning down pages as hints for our parents.

As of 2009, Sears has put its Wishbook online, but on Friday, August 24, Sears Canada celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Wishbook.  Sears Canada CEO Calvin McDonald toured his hometown of London, Ontario and hand-delivered the Wishbook to his neighbors.  (I have included a link to the Sacramento Bee news story here.)

There’s a great article summarizing the history of the Wishbook on the Sears Archives. With all the shopping choices we have today, it’s easy to be nostalgic for the past, when 605 pages (1968) was more than anyone could want or imagine!

Lego Anniversary

We are “toying” with our final list of ideas for the theme of our Christmas tree for the Festival of Trees in November. On Monday we hit upon the ultimate idea, but then Jeremy posted Tuesday about The LEGO Company.

Coincidentally, this week LEGO released a beautiful animated film in honor if the company’s 80th birthday explaining the origins of this most creative toy. The 17-minute short celebrates the hard work and genius of the founding father and son.

We thought about a gold 50th Anniversary tree and a 50th anniversary of James Bond tree. I think people would love an 80th anniversary LEGO tree!

There are plenty of figures we could make and hang on the tree. My sons have unlimited quantities of the bricks they could donate to the cause (equal to and surpassing the number of Barbie shoes most girls have in their toy boxes); however, giving up the stash of tiny toys might take some arm twisting.

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A Holiday Favorite- Legos!

Legos are still one of my favorite gifts to give, and receive, at Christmas time.  Every year when we do Secret Santa at work I make sure to list them on my little form as a toy favorite.  These creative building sets are produced by the Lego Group and have been around since 1949.  They got their start in Denmark and are still produced there today.  The bricks are the creation of Ole Christiansen who was a carpenter.  He got started making wooden toys in 1932 and by 1934 his company was known by the Dutch phrase Log Godt, or “play well”.  By 1947 Ole had transitioned to using plastic to create blocks for building sets.  These came to be now as “automatic binding bricks” and the first Legos as we would recognize them were produced in 1949.  By 1958 the design had changed to a universal standard that still is used today.  Blocks from 50 years ago would fit together perfectly with blocks produced today!  In the last 50 years over 50 billions building bricks have been created.  On average there are about 36 billion produced in a year now.  The company still holds to the same values that guided their early success.  These values are: Imagination, Creativity, Fun, Learning, Caring, and Quality. It is easy to see how these values guide the fantastic products that still find a home under Christmas trees around the world.

The Lego company has more than just building sets for the consumer today.  There are books, movies, video games, and even amusement parks.  All of these various items could be the perfect Christmas gift for that creative child of any age.  There are small mini-figures for Christmas that include Santa, snowmen, trees, and reindeer.  There are a number of ornament designs you could choose to build.  Occasionally there will be special sets dedicated to Christmas and winter.  Starting this October you can purchase the new Winter Village Cottage.  This $99 set, exclusive for the holidays 2012, has over 1400 pieces and includes trees, decorations, and a home ready for Christmas.  If that isn’t enough of a challenge for you master builders, you might want to get started on your own project to rival the world’s largest Lego Christmas Tree.  This creation was built in 2011 in the UK at the Pancras Station in London.  The tree used over 600,000 bricks and towered above the public at 33 feet tall.  Check out this website for a great photo collection.  I think I might be able to find a plan to build a Lego Nativity scene.  What do you think?