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Elves were not a part of American Christmas tradition until the Victorian era and a Louisa May Alcott Christmas story (unpublished) in 1950.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.

What about the elves?

Lately Natalie has been making much to do about the Holiday helpers posing as Santa at the malls.  But we all know that these guys are nothing without their trusty elf assistants.  The loyal and hard-working elves make the whole Christmas experience at the mall possible.  Who do you think sets up those elaborate displays featuring trains, cottages, tress, and more?  It’s the elves!  Who gets the kids to smile and stop screaming while sitting on a total stranger’s lap?  The elves!  How does that picture that costs you $14.50 get taken, printed, and thrown into a cute cardboard holder?  Magic?  Only if you mean the magic of the elves.  The Christmas mall elf as an arduous work life.  These are no Santa’s workshop elves, protected from the masses of children at their North Pole compound.

The mall elves are not trained and pampered like the mall Santas.  Research found no formal training centers or certification programs.  There are no designer outfits to be found or national fashion protocol.  Officially you are known as Santa’s assistant and expected to fill one of many levels of help for the guy in the chair.  You might be the greeter- the one to “encourage” passing parents and children to stop in and visit.   This job is the hard sell- convincing a family not intending to visit Santa to stop what they are doing, get in a line and wait to pay for a photo they don’t want- FUN!  Or you might be the helper.  This is the elf that talks to the mom and the kid and then funnels the info to Santa (you didn’t really think he knew every kid’s name and particulars did you?).  Helper elf has lots of pressure to get it right.  Next up os the photographer elf.  This elf has the unbelievable difficult job of snapping the perfect pic while the child screams, squirms, and cries through the visit.  Last elf up is the cashier elf who has to try to up-sell you to the deluxe photo package including frame and decorative ornament.  Regardless of which position you are assigned, you have fussy parents, line management, crying kids, and candy canes to navigate with the non-stop 60 minute loop of Christmas music playing over it all!  Finally the most difficult job of every mall elf- explaining to the curious 5 or 6 year-old how this man isn’t the real Santa, but one of his “helpers”.  Good Christmas mall elves are the true protectors of the magic that is Santa Claus.  Who’s up for being an elf this fall?

Crumpet the Elf and more hilarious stories

The weather continues to be perfect for mulching, and I’m listening to my newest favorite, the “play away,” a pocket-sized book on tape with headphones. I just finished humorist David Sedaris’s book, Holidays on Ice. If you are a romantic Christmas person, full of hope, good will and Christmas candles in the window, this isn’t for you. His fictional stories and personal essays focus on the commercial nature of Christmas, creating an unflattering snapshot of Americans at their consuming worst; however, the first story about his job as an elf at Macy’s during the holidays is really funny.

Most of us have stood in the mall Santa line at one point or another.  I can remember taking C.J. and Ian and dealing with the tears that were inspired by the frightening experience of being a small child expected to sit on a stranger’s lap and talk to him.  Sedaris reveals the dark underside of the mall Santa business.

First broadcast in 1992 on NPR, “SantaLand Diaries” is Sedaris’s recollection of his job being Crumpet the Elf. It has been replayed often in subsequent holiday seasons and has been adapted for theatre. For me, listening to the story may replace A Christmas Carol. I am including a link to Sedaris reading a segment of his essay here.

Holidays on Ice, published in 1998, includes the “SantaLand Diaries” with other stories.  I didn’t like the story, “Christmas Means Giving,” where two families compete to give the most at the holidays; although the one-upmanship of the annual Christmas card frenzy is maybe a little too familiar. Another story that mocks elementary school Christmas pageants is accurate, too—maybe that is why I was uncomfortable listening to a critique of myself.

I’m hooked on Sedaris, though, and plan to branch out to a few of his non-holiday books, including Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: a Modest Bestiary (2011) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2005).

Keep Christmas Present

So much of what Natalie and I have talked about focuses on how to keep Christmas alive in many ways throughout the year.  Christmas is full of many feelings and emotions- a time of so much happiness and joy!  We’ll be talking about crafts and decorations and presents and all kinds of prep for Christmas 2012.  But what about the present?  Maybe there’s a way to remind us of the present that is Christmas right now in the present.  Got it?  What I’m talking about is some type of reminder you can look at anytime to remind you of all the goodness that comes with Christmas.  As far back as I can remember my family has always kept out some little Christmas item year round.  I think I was convinced that it was an accident growing up.  You know like someone forgot to put away that little Christmas angel figurine.  With age came the realization that it was by design.  So today I keep a single item out all year-long.  It brings a smile to my face and a great feeling on those days of winter dreariness.  My little year-round Christmas item is Hickory.  Hickory is an antique Christmas elf.  He originally belonged to my grandparents and has been handed down to me.  (Yes to those of you wondering- he is the origin of my need to name all elves Hickory!)  He sits on top of the china cabinet and smiles that happy grin all year round, a great present!  Do you have any year round Christmas decorations or other items?  Snap a picture or send us a description at TheYuleLog@gmail.com.