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Santa Gets A Helping Hand

The Elves

In 1822, Clement Moore had described Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf," but didn't say a thing about any help that Santa might be receiving. That problem was remedied in 1857 when Harper’s Weekly published the anonymous poem "The Wonders of Santa Claus," an excerpt of which said:

Beyond the ocean many a mile,
    And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men
    In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
    As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
    The old man is still alive.

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.

It would be a capital treat be sure,
    A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
    Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
    Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
    They are off in a frosty mist.

It was just a passing mention, but it was a start. For the full poem, plus engravings, please see The Wonders of Santa Claus.

It was Louisa May Alcott that first mentioned elves in a Christmas story.  However, the publisher (foolishly, in retrospect), declined to print the story. But the story somehow managed to hang-on.

Elves were mentioned frequently after that; it seems to have caught the fancy of the public.

a_rock8.jpg (8586 bytes)Norman Rockwell included elves in his portraits of Santa Claus prepared for the Saturday Evening Post. As a tired Santa slept, the elves kept busy: Santa and His Helpers, December 2, 1922. Haddon Sundblom, in several of his covers for the Coca-Cola™ company, also included Santa's faithful assistants:

 

The elves feature prominently in the folklore from Scandinavia.  The Norwegians, Swedes and Danes (and also the Finns?) all pay homage to the Nisse -- both in the home and the barn.  As Barbara Hallman Kissinger noted, these spirits had the tiny stature like an elf; they were hundreds of years old and had a white bear, gray shirt and trousers, a red cap and stockings and wooden shoes. They looked over the home and the barn, and were generally benevolent. However, they were quick to take offense if they were overlooked during the holiday season.  In these cultures, it was the practice to offer the Nisse a bowl of rice pudding (or similar treat such as porridge) for Christmas night. Later they would be called the JuleNisse (Christmas Elf). And there was also the tradition of the Julemand (the Christmas man -- similar to figures in Germany and England).

Likewise in Great Britain, there are traditions of fairies and fairy-elves according to William Hone. These beings, like the Nisse, had a well known predisposition to reward the good and punish the bad, especially as it relates to housekeeping. In particular, it was the Brownies who provided domestic service.

This topic is a subject of ongoing research. This is a surprisingly difficult area to research; a popular search engine produced over 60,000 hits on "Christmas elves." When I added the word "history' the number dropped to only 887! Whew!

References:

William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832; Fairies - the entry for December 27, pp. 1526-36.

Frid Ingulstad, The Scandanavian Elves: Their Life and History. Oslo: Egmont Boker Fredhoi AS-SFG, 2000. Terrific illustrations by Sven Solem. Somewhat fanciful; lots of fun.

Barbara Hallman Kissinger, Christmas Past (Pelican Press, 2005). Recommended.

Moore, Clement C., A Visit From St. Nicholas.

The Wonders of Santa Claus. Harper's Weekly, December 26, 1857.

Also see: The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spencer, and  (The Year Book, 1823).

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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson


The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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