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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:
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.
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!
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).