Santa’s elves are busy this week, hammering together the last of the toys for good children, baking gingerbread men, and cleaning up after those notoriously messy reindeer, who always suffer digestive problems from too many goodies. We think of Santa’s elves as happy, cheerful, benevolent creatures, exuding good will and Christmas joy. Yeah, maybe. But lurking beneath that veneer of effervescent chirpiness is a wicked malevolence that is up to no good and longs to wreak unholy havoc.
In Germanic folklore an elf was one of a race of powerful, supernatural beings who typically did nasty things: made sexual threats against people, seduced both women and men, ruined crops, and caused nightmares, hiccups, and other physical and mental illnesses to people and livestock.
The word comes from Northumbrian ælf and West Saxon ylfe, meaning “sprite, fairy, goblin, or incubus.” Its further derivation is from Proto-Germanic albiz, Old Norse alfr, and the German alp, meaning “evil spirit or goblin.” Some linguists trace its origin to Proto-Indo-European albho, meaning “white”—perhaps alluding to ghosts or to illnesses that caused white skin.
By the Middle Ages elves were confused with fairies and became a little more benevolent. The Christmas elf showed up in the 19th century. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas referred to Santa Claus himself as “a right jolly old elf.” In 1850 Louisa May Alcott wrote (but did not publish) a book called Christmas Elves. Godey’s Ladies Book had an image of elves in Santa’s workshop in 1873.
Today, the cherubic Elf on a Shelf is ubiquitous at Christmas time—but I’d be careful about turning my back on him if I were you.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows when he comes up against a better rhymester, and he grudgingly yields his usual place this week to the superior artistry of the late Morris Bishop, who wrote the quintessential paean to elves.
How To Treat Elves
I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall—
'Twas taller than himself!
"How do you do, little elf," I said,
"And what do you do all day?"
"I dance 'n fwolic about," said he,
"'N scuttle about and play;"
"I s'prise the butterflies, 'n when
A katydid I see,
'Katy didn't' I say, and he
Says 'Katy did!' to me!
"I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
'N only jus' to fwighten him
I jump out'n say 'Boo!'
"'N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
'N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
"'N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
'N what do you think of that?" said he.
I said, "It makes me sick.
"It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool."
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The god damn little fool.
From Spilt Milk, The Putnam Publishing Group, © copyright 1941, 1969 by Morris Bishop