In English-speaking cultures, a Christmas elf is a diminutive elf that lives with Santa Claus at the North Pole and acts as his helper. Christmas elves are usually depicted as green- or red-clad, with large, pointy ears and wearing pointy hats. They are most often depicted as humanoids, but sometimes as furry mammals with tails. Santa's elves are often said to make the toys in Santa's workshop and take care of his reindeer, among other tasks.
They were first introduced in literature by Louisa May Alcott in 1856. Santa is much older, emerging in U.S. folklore in the early 17th century from St. Nicholas with attributes of various European Christmas traditions, especially from English Father Christmas and Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in the first half of the 19th century with the Scandinavian nisse or tomte, and St Nicholas himself is called an elf in A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823).
The origins of the elf are said to have been derived from Norse mythology, which refers to the álfar, also known as huldufólk 'hidden folk'. The elf character is most likely to have combined this Norse legend with other Scandinavian and Celtic cultures and myths regarding elves, fairies and nature spirits. In various regions of Europe there were similar supernatural beings that can be connected to elves, such as kobolds from Germany and house spirits named brownies in Scotland. In Medieval Europe, elves were seen as nefarious and were often linked to demons.
The Christmas elf appeared in literature as early as 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published a book titled Christmas Elves. The image of the elves in the workshop was popularized by Godey's Lady's Book, with a front cover illustration for its 1873 Christmas issue showing Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption "Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time". During this time, Godey's was immensely influential to the birth of Christmas traditions, having shown the first widely circulated picture of a modern Christmas tree on the front cover of its 1850 Christmas issue. Additional recognition was given in Austin Thompson's 1876 work "The House of Santa Claus, a Christmas Fairy Show for Sunday Schools".
In the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), often attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, Santa Claus himself is described in line 45 as follows: "He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf". Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts was done by the Yule goat. By 1891, the saint had merged with Tomten, which was previously an elfish / dwarfish farm guardian. Following the work of Jenny Nyström, this hybrid figure became known as Jultomten.
In the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Ireland, the modern legend of Santa Claus typically includes diminutive elves at Christmas; green-clad elves with pointy ears and pointy hats as Santa's employees / assistants. They make the toys in Santa's workshop located in the North Pole. In recent years, other toys—usually high-tech toys like computers, video games, DVDs, and DVD players, and even mobile phones—have also been depicted as being ready for delivery, but not necessarily made, in the workshop as well. In this portrayal, elves slightly resemble nimble and delicate versions of the dwarfs of Norse myth.
In more recent movies (e.g. The Santa Clause series and The Christmas Chronicles), the elves' jobs also include operating police and air forces protecting the North Pole, helping Santa outside the Pole when he is captured by the real-world police, and as Santa's secret-service-like bodyguards (Fred Claus).
The elves are generally said to live for hundreds, or even thousands, of years, despite the fact that in some cases they appear eternally youthful as children.
Christmas elves have had their role expanded in modern films and television. They are generally portrayed in live-action films either by little actors, children, forced perspective to make normal-sized actors appear diminutive, or computer-generated imagery (CGI); otherwise by traditional animation, stop-motion animation, or computer animation according to the format of the film. For instance:
Valentine D'Arcy Sheldon's children's picture book, The Christmas Tree Elf, tells the origin story of how Santa met his elves. It also introduces Blink the elf, who introduces Santa to the elves and saves Christmas by extinguishing a Christmas tree fire.
A strong connection to Christmas and elves can be found in the popular fairy tale The Elves and the Shoemaker published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. In this tale a shoemaker, who had not been able to meet the demand to make more shoes, is greeted by several elves just before Christmas to finish all the shoes for him.
Further information: Companions of Saint Nicholas
In European countries, Santa has differing helpers depending on the country. In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) whose inclusion has become a controversial issue for the Blackface depiction of the character.
In Germany, the companions are the Knecht Ruprecht and in Luxembourg, they are known as Hoesecker.
In Nordic countries, Christmas Elves are considered nisser and not elves and they will usually wear only red instead of the green and red outfits that they are known for in English speaking countries.