If you are not familiar with it culturally, the concept of the Christmas elf is jarring to the senses. It has absolutely nothing to do with the biblical Christmas and is entirely a figment of someone’s imagination along with Santa Claus. The stereotype Christmas elf dressed in red tights and Robin-Hood’s-Merry-Men-gone-wrong outfits were thrust upon North American society by none other than Louisa May Alcott back in 1856, completely disregarding the European ancestry. Let’s take a few steps back to the original concept of St. Nick – i.e. the Bishop of Myra who distributed fruits and nuts to the needy children. According to German folklore, St. Nicholas had an assistant that went by the name of Ruprecht, a knave who kept track of the good and bad deeds in a very special book. The good children received the rewards, while the naughty children received a whipping from Knecht Ruprecht (with a broom).
Ruprecht debuted during the mid-17th century in what was then known as the “territories formerly in the Holy Roman Empire” (Wikipedia). He is also referred to as Krampus, a creature that pre-dates Christian traditions, originally depicted as a demon that associated primarily with witches. When Krampus was linked to St. Nicholas in the Christian tradition he was then fashioned to be more of a devil. The Brothers Grimm then transformed Ruprecht into an elf or what is known in German as a kobold, a character that can be both benevolent or malicious.
Somewhere in the process of crossing the Atlantic, Knecht Ruprecht vanished altogether when the settlers reached North America and was merged with Sinter Klaas. When St. Nicholas or Sinter Klaas was re-conceptualized into Santa Claus, the idea was to get rid of all religious associations that the original characters represented. So Ruprecht essentially became Santa Claus…
The modern day Santa Elves known in North America are a hybrid of German kobolds (specifically the sub-group known as the Heinzelmännchen) and the Scandinavian Tomten. The Tomte (as they are called in Sweden) are magical creatures three feet high with long white beards and pointy hats wearing colourful farmer clothes and red caps. They appear only during the Winter solstice and are believed to be highly skilled.
That’s not where the story ends though… Santa’s Elves also have English and Scottish ancestry by way of the brownies. Unlike the Scandinavian cousins who were farmhands, the brownies are house dwellers who help with chores. They are extremely shy and only come out at night, when all the humans have gone to sleep. Their work is done in exchange for food gifts, and should the day come that this food is ever considered as payment, the brownies will leave the house and search for a new one.
It gets even more interesting… “Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell distinguishes between the English brownie, which lived in houses, and the Scottish ùruisg or urisk, which lived outside in streams and waterfalls and was less likely to offer domestic help. The ùruisg enjoyed solitude at certain seasons of the year. Around the end of the harvest, he became more sociable, and hovered around farmyards, stables and cattle-houses. He particularly enjoyed dairy products, and tended to intrude on milkmaids, who made regular libations of milk or cream to charm him off, or to gain his favour. He was usually seen only by those who possessed second sight, though there were instances when he made himself visible to ordinary people as well. He is said to have been jolly and personable, with flowing yellow hair, wearing a broad blue bonnet and carrying a long walking staff.” (source: Wikipedia)