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Friday, December 14, 2018


By Bea Tifton

When I was four years old, I was wafting through the house, caught in the pre-Christmas euphoria and excitement, when I saw, just peeking up from our window, a little man with a beard peering in. As our eyes made contact, he ducked down and vanished. 

Elated, I ran to my mother and yelled, “Mommy! I just saw one of Santa’s elves!”

“That’s wonderful.” she replied. “He was checking to see if you’ve been good.” 

Then, she rushed me out of the room and walked calmly to the telephone, where she proceeded to call the local police and report that we had been the latest victims of the neighborhood peeping Tom.

Okay, so that wasn’t actually one of Santa’s elves. But, where did we get the whole idea, anyway?

Elves at work

Elves came from early Norse mythology. The word elf comes from the word √°lfar, also known as hulduf√≥lk, or "hidden folk." They could be good to people who treated them well or play pranks on people who treated them badly. Elvan pranks included sitting on someone’s head to give them nightmares, tangling their hair, (so that’s what happens to me every night), souring their milk, or stealing their sausages. If someone left a bowl of porridge on their doorstep at night, the elves would be appeased and would leave them alone.

Santa, the right jolly old elf.

The first reference to Christmas elves has been attributed to the 1822 Clement Clark Moore poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which refers to Santa as a “right jolly old elf.”

 In 1857 Harper’s Weekly then published “The Wonders of Santa Claus.” The poem includes the lines

"In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
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 toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys."

The Wonders of Santa Claus

And, of course, there’s that creepy little fellow, The Elf on the Shelf. In 2005 Carol Aebersold self-published her book and sold each one with a little toy elf. The story detailed a little Christmas elf who kept an eye on children to tell Santa whether they are good or bad. A sort of elven Homeland Security.  I have to admit, as much as I loved elves and fairies when I was a child, I’m glad that I was a grownup before this particular tradition became “The Thing.”  

And, just a little friendly advice in the true spirit of Christmas. If you do see a Christmas elf peeking into your window some night, you might want to pick up the phone and call the cops.

Pappas, Stephanie. “Elf on a Shelf: The Strange History of Santa’s Little Helpers.” Live Science, December 18, 2013.
Radford, Benjamin. “A History of Elves” Live Science. October 31, 2017.


  1. Cute post, Bea. I've long been wary of elves.

  2. Thanks, Caroline. Yes, you have to keep your eye on them. Or at least leave some porridge on your back porch, just in case.

  3. I like elves. I always tell my husband that he must think it's elves who put his dirty plates he leaves on the counter or in the sink into the dishwasher. Then I say, guess again. It's not. Happy Holidays!

  4. Happy Holidays, Judy Ann Davis. I hope the elves pamper you.


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