The Strange History of Santa's Little Helpers
For more than a thousand years, elves have been evolving from mysterious nature spirits to Santa's little helpers.
The children of North America have a new Christmas tradition: The elf on the shelf.
Alternatively panned as creepy and adored as a fun holiday ritual, the trademarked Elf on the Shelf dates back to 2005, when author Carol Aebersold self-published a tale of a little elf sent by Santa to report on children's behavior leading up to Christmas. A toy elf sold with Aebersold's book plays that role in thousands of homes around the country.
It's a strange place to end up for these Christmas-y little creatures, who once stood side by side with Norse gods and took the blame for inexplicable illnesses in medieval Europe. But elves stand the test of time, playing modern-day roles in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series as well as acting as Santa's spy agents. [Photos of 'Middle Earth': New Zealand's Fantasy Landscape]
Here's how these little people have evolved.
The origin of elves Ancient Norse mythology refers to the álfar, also known as huldufólk, or "hidden folk." However, it's risky to translate álfar directly to the English word "elf," said Terry Gunnell, a folklorist at the University of Iceland. Elves are thought of as little people, perhaps wearing stocking caps and cavorting with fairies, but the original conception of álfar was far less whimsical.
Some ancient poems place them side by side with the Norse gods, perhaps as another word for the Vanir, a group of gods associated with fertility, or perhaps as their own godly race. It's likely, Gunnell said, that elves' inventors had no single, unified theory on elvish identity; rather, there were a variety of related folk beliefs regarding this unseen race.
"They look like us, they live like us -- at least in the older materials -- and probably, nowadays, if they're living anywhere, they're living between floors in flats ," Gunnell told LiveScience, referring to the notion of an invisible, parallel world inhabited by álfar - the friendly neighbors who live between the seventh and eighth floors.
Iceland was settled in the 800s by Scandinavians and Celts, brought from Ireland as slaves. Both Scandinavian and Celtic cultures had myths of fairies, elves and nature spirits, which began to meld into the concept of álfar as representatives of the landscape, Gunnell said. Iceland's eerie, volcanic setting probably played into these myths, Gunnell said, especially in the dark of winter, when the Northern Lights are the only thing illuminating the long nights.
"The land is alive, and really, the hidden people are a personification of a very living landscape that you have to show respect for, that you can't really defeat," Gunnell said. "You have to work with it." [Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth]
Elves evolve Scandinavians and Celts weren't the only Europeans who used unseen, supernatural species as symbols of the wilds surrounding them. Farther south, Germans believed in dwarves and little sprites called kobolds. Scots had house spirits called brownies.
Elves became part of this mythological mix throughout the first millennium A.D., according to Alaric Hall, a lecturer at the University of Leeds who penned an entry on elves for the upcoming "Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters" (Ashgate, 2014). The word "elf" derives from the ancestor language of German, English and today's Scandinavian languages, Hall wrote, and the first written references to them come from church texts starting around A.D. 500.
Medieval Europeans saw elves as dark and dangerous, and linked them to demons. In the Old English "Beowulf," which dates to sometime between A.D. 700 and 1000, elves get a mention as an evil race that descended from Cain, the biblical son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother:
"Of Cain awoke all that woful breed, Etins and elves and evil-spirits, as well as the giants that warred with God."
These religious references reveal the clash and melding of folk beliefs and new religion as Christianity crept into Europe. In different tales at different times, elves alternated between good and bad, Hall wrote.
They could deliver babies safely through a difficult labor -- or steal away a human baby and replace it with a sickly and deformed changeling. Elves, known as alp in German, could cause nightmares (Alpdrück), perhaps similar to other mythology surrounding the scary experience of sleep paralysis. Nevertheless, elves were probably still considered human-size, rather than diminutive, Hall wrote.
By William Shakespeare's day, elves lost many of their malevolent undertones. Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," written in the 1590s, included an elflike figure, Puck, who acted as a jokester or trickster.
From myth to Christmas Much as the modern Thanksgiving menu dates back to the 1800s, so too do modern U.S. Christmas traditions. Elves became linked with Santa Claus in the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known today as "The Night Before Christmas." That poem refers to Santa Claus as a "jolly old elf."
With the elf-Christmas link established, other writers began to get creative with the idea. In 1857, Harper's Weekly published a poem called "The Wonders of Santa Claus," which tells how Santa "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 idea caught on. In 1922, famed artist Norman Rockwell released a painting of an exhausted Santa surrounded by tiny, industrious elves, trying to get a dollhouse finished in time for Christmas. A 1932 short movie by Disney called "Santa's Workshop" showed bearded, blue-clad elves singing, prepping Santa's sleigh, brushing reindeer teeth and helping Santa with the naughty/nice list. "Molly seems to be OK; she eats her spinach every day," an elf rhymes, before nixing another child's ambitious list because he doesn't wash behind his ears. [6 Surprising Facts About Reindeer]
The modern era has brought nonconformist elves to the forefront, first in the form of Hermey the Misfit Elf in 1964's now-classic TV special, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." (Hermey preferred dentistry to servitude in Santa's workshop.) And in 2003, the comedy "Elf" starred Will Ferrell as a human brought up by Santa's elves who must travel to New York City to find his biological family.
The latest in elf innovation, the Elf on the Shelf, gives elves a duty they've never had before: not just making toys, but also serving as Santa's informants. In some ways, however, the Elf on the Shelf's arguable creepiness gets back to Christmas' roots. In Iceland, Gunnell said, children don't await Santa Claus; they wait for 13 "Yule Lads," who leave gifts in their shoes. Nor do they traditionally fear a lump of coal as a consequence of bad behavior. In Icelandic lore, the horrifying ogress Grýla eats up naughty children.
Likewise, Icelanders' beliefs about elves are closer to the concepts seen in ancient tales. As of 2007, about 37 percent of Icelanders said it was "possible" that álfar still roamed the countryside, another 17 percent said it was "probable" and 8 percent were certain elves were still afoot, Gunnell said. He compared the reluctance to discount elves with other common folk beliefs around the world, such as the notion that the dead might be able to contact the living.
"It's quite nice for your children to have a sense of the landscape like this, to have a sense of magic," Gunnell said. Americans, he argued, are looking for the same magic with both their Christmas traditions and their leisure activities.
"What you have in America is a longing for elves," he said. "This is the popularity of "Game of Thrones," "Lord of the Rings" -- you name it."
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An Elf on the Shelf balloon flies through W 59th Street during the Macy's 87th Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Dec. 24, 2012 --
When all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call Rudolph names, like Pinocchio, he had to take their abuse and accept being excluded from their reindeer games, like Monopoly. What if Rudolph with his nose-so-bright refused to guide Santa's sleigh in retaliation for the abuse he had faced from dull-nosed reindeer? Would another reindeer be able to fill in for Rudolph? After all, he isn't the only red-nosed reindeer. Certain reindeer in the Norwegian Arctic have naturally pink noses. Reindeer noses have 25 percent more capillaries than the human nose, according to a recent study published in the journal BMJ. The reddish coloration of the animals noses results from the high concentration of blood vessels. The red-nosed reindeer lacked one important feature. Their noses, although useful in regulating body heat, were unable to glow. A Rudolph rebellion could indeed cancel Christmas for Santa unless he can find a truly illuminating animal. Santa will need to check out the resumes of some other glowing creatures.
ANALYSIS: Why Some Reindeer Have Red Noses
Dogs do a good job hauling sleds around in the Arctic, so they already have on the job experience. However, dogs don't naturally shine. Recently though, a genetically modified beagle was designed to glow. A gene from the jellyfish species Aequorea victoria that causes them to glow, or fluoresce, under ultraviolet light was inserted into the the beagle. In further studies, the genetically modified mutts could have disease-causing genes inserted along with the glowing genes. That would allow scientists to know which dogs had picked up the disease causing genes by shining a UV light on the animals. "The dog has 268 genetic type diseases that are similar to those of humans," study co-author ByeongChun Lee told Discovery News’ Jennifer Viegas. "Also, the dog has physiological and anatomical similarities with humans. These reasons make them a good model for human disease." The only problem is the bright-bodied beagle, named Tegon, is adorable. If Santa’s sleigh was pulled by a frisky little beagle, too many kids would want to keep the pup as a present. Plus the dog might raid Santa’s cookies and milk.
NEWS: Genetically Modified Beagle Glows
If Santa doesn't want to monkey around with glowing simians, perhaps he can use the fluorescent felines created by Mayo Clinic researchers to help in the fight against HIV-AIDS. The cats were genetically engineered to carry a protein that defends them from infection by the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), the cat version of HIV. The cats glow because of the jellyfish gene was inserted along with the FIV-resistance gene. If the genetically modified mouser glowed an eerie green, the researchers knew it was also resistant to FIV. "One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health," said Eric Poeschla, lead author of the study published in Nature Methods, in a press release. "It can help cats as much as people.” Santa would have a ready supply of milk for the cats, what with all the cookies and milk left for him. Unfortunately, cats have proven remarkably difficult to herd. Getting them to pull a sleigh would be too much of a challenge for Santa’s elves. Glowing cats are better fit for Halloween anyway.
If brilliant beagles and fluorescent felines were too cute, perhaps Santa would be better off with an animal few kids want to cuddle. Glowing roaches could guide the sleigh and would have no trouble getting down the chimney. No luck here though, the incandescent insects’ lights may have been snuffed out permanently by a volcano. The roach was only known from a single specimen collected more than 70 years ago in Ecuador. Since then an eruption of the Tungurahua volcano may have wiped out the only known habitat for the insect. Oh well, Mrs. Claus probably wouldn’t have liked Santa bringing roaches around the house, anyway.
ANALYSIS: Volcano Vaporizes Cool Glowing Roach
If Santa’s looking for an animal that is both unappealing as a pet and hasn’t been obliterated off the face of the planet by molten magma, perhaps a squid would do swimmingly. Numerous species of squid and octopi can change their colors for camouflage or communication. Some squid live at the very bottom of the sea, where very little of the sun's light reaches. In the inky depths, the creatures produce their own light for a variety of reasons, including attracting prey and communicating. Jules Verne and Peter Benchley may have given squid a naughty reputation, but some squid have been observed tenderly caring for their unhatched eggs. The nurturing instincts of the squid mothers fit with Santa's style and having all those tentacles could help with wrapping presents and other holiday chores. The glowing squid shown here, Watasenia scintillans, has special organs called photophores that allow it to light up. Plus, this species is edible. So, in a pinch, Santa could stuff a stocking with calamari. The problem is, they simply can't survive outside of the water, much less at the high altitudes reached by Santa's sleigh.
PHOTOS: Squid, Glowing Bacteria Work Well Together
While the elves have their diving gear on to wrangle squid, they may as well pick up a few glowing sharks. The largest of fish, the whale shark, has spots on its back that shine brightly in the sunlight. Every whale shark has a different pattern of spots, which ichthyologists use to identify individuals. Santa wouldn't have any trouble telling the sharks apart, and the giant fish would surely be able to haul the weight of all the world's presents. Lantern sharks and smalleye pygmy sharks are both shrimps compared to the whale shark at less 30 centimeters in length. But they have a bright idea that may keep them safe from predators and could guide Santa's sleigh. Studies by Julien Claes of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium proved the sharks, like squid, have photophores on their bellies that were capable of producing light. Hormonal signals caused the shark’s underside to glow. The lights may help disguise the shark's silhouette from predators looking up towards the light filtering down from the surface. The lights may also aid in communication. But landing a whaleshark on a rooftop may be too big of a challenge, even if the elves could figure out how to keep the fish alive out of water.
NEWS: Glowing Shark Wears Cloak of Invisibility
Santa has to deliver presents to some pretty rough parts of the world. He might need some protection. The bright glow of a scorpion leading the way would surely keep the jolly old elf safe from sleigh-jackers. Scorpions naturally glow under UV-light. Entomologists use this to find the creatures at night by searching the desert with portable UV- lights. Scientists aren't completely sure why the scorpions glow. It may be that the glow is a by product of their exoskeletons chemical structure. Or it could be part of the mechanism they use to avoid coming out in daylight or during the full moon. But sadly scorpions will probably have to go on the naughty list. Children would simply be afraid if the patter of reindeer hooves was replaced by the skittering of scorpion claws on the roof.
One of the most familiar of luminescent creatures, the firefly, has some distinct advantages over its rivals for Rudolph's job. For one thing, they can already fly. Plus, they produce their own light and don't need any UV-light sources or genetic engineering to help them out. Each species of firefly has a distinct sequence of flashes it uses to find a mate. But the frisky firefly better beware. Carnivorous fireflies can mimic their relatives' flash patterns. By copying the flash pattern of a female, they invite a male firefly over for a dinner date. The unsuspecting male ends up as the dinner. Just think of how sad the world's children would be if their toys were delayed because an amorous insect got himself eaten! For all their flying and glowing advantages, fireflies might be more trouble than they're worth for Kris Kringle.
Glowing snails? Now Santa is really getting to the bottom of barrel of potential sleigh draggers. A bioluminescent species of clusterwink snail (Hinea brasiliana) may use its light producing ability to make itself look bigger and startle off predators. Santa has to deliver presents to children all over the world. He could never make it using snails to pull his sled. It looks like no other animals are up for the challenge of leading Santa's reindeer through a foggy Christmas Eve. No wonder he's the most famous reindeer of all.
PHOTOS: What Glows in the Night