Santa’s Christmas Elves: Their Names, History and More About Them
The Mystery of Santa’s Christmas Elves: Where Did Their Modern Names Come From
I am in the process of writing a personalized book about Christmas. It should be out by October and in time for this Christmas. It’s a PhotoStory personalized adventure book and I am quite excited about it (excuse the over-enthusiasm).
Anyway…the book features Santa and Santa’s elves. In writing the story I wanted to do some research on the elves - who they were, how many there were, what their names were, how they came about. We know all about the reindeer (for the record: there are nine and their names are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and of course, Rudolph; there used to be a time when I knew all of them by heart), but we don’t know much about Santa’s elves at all.
Santa Has Six Elves!
Turns out officially Santa only has six elves - at least according to modern Internet lore. I can’t find any actual primary sources or anything that points to why or how these six names came to the fore. All the articles (like these from Singing-Bell, ElfCrazy, DidYouKnow, WorldOfChristmas and others) either seem to be derived from each other or from an unfound original source.
It’s kind of amazing, because everything on the Internet seems remarkably consistent about the elves: their Western names are the same, and each source cites them as having the same responsibilities and duties. All this indicates a common source that this would have come from, but I can’t seem to find it! (And nor do any of the sites that show the information link or refer to it either). It’s just one of those Internet mysteries!
Anyway, the six elves are:
- Alabaster Snowball: Alabaster is the administrator of Santa’s (in)famous Naughty and Nice List. You definitely want to make sure you’re always nice to him!
- Bushy Evergreen: Bushy is the inventor of the magic toy-making machine Santa uses to produce all the toys that are sent to kids all over the world.
- Pepper Minstix: Pepper is the protector of Santa’s secret village near the North Pole. Think of him as Head of Elf Security.
- Shinny Upatree: Shinny is Santa’s oldest friend and co-founder of Santa’s secret village and workshop.
- Sugarplum Mary (aka Mary Christmas): Mary is in charge of all the sweets and treats production. She is Mrs. Claus’s assistant and is in charge of the kitchen (let’s not dwell too much on the fact that the only female elf is both an assistant and works in the kitchen…or let’s do actually).
- Wunorse Openslae (say it out loud): He’s responsible for Santa’s sleigh, as well as taking care of the aforementioned reindeer.
My favorite elf character is probably Alabaster - I love his name, and just think of the sheer power the man must wield. At the stroke of his pen, a kid’s Christmas can be made or undone. Just like that. I imagine him as a thin little fellow with a giant pot-belly, with pince-nez glasses, sitting behind a desk filled with mountains of papers, chewing tobacco, thriving on his own self-importance as he endlessly reviews lists of names. An elvish bureaucrat, not too different from the legions we have in third-world governments the world over.
Famous Christmas Elves
The concept of Christmas elves is a well-known fact: everybody now knows about Santa’s elves, who sit in his workshop and make toys, check the Naughty and Nice etc etc. Interestingly, although Christmas elves as a collective group are known the world over, there aren’t too many individually famous Christmas elves. I mean, how many do you know by name? To be clear I am talking about Christmas elves as distinct from regular elves who aren’t affiliated with Christmas (so no, Dobbie from Harry Potter and Legolas from Lord of the Rings don’t count).
- Buddy from Elf: Will Farrell, back when Will was funny and made good movies
- Hermey the Misfit from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: It was a 1964 movie that’s an oft-repeated TV special
- Bernard from The Santa Clause: David Krumholtz plays Bernard in this highly OK movie
- Jingles from Archie Comics: Don’t ask me why, but I read a lot of Archie comics growing up, and happen to know this fact.
How Did Elves Get Associated with Christmas?
Elves have existed as part of mythology for well over a millenia. Ancient Norse mythology refers to the álfar, also known as huldufólk, or "hidden folk." Originally this was a catch-all term to refer to describe unseen, supernatural species that inhabited the wilds surrounding people at the time. Over time these got refined into fairies, gnomes, dwarves, elves and other magical, mythological creatures. The Old English epic Beowulf (written sometime between 700 and 1000 A.D.) makes an explicit reference to elves, saying:
“Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,
Etins and elves and evil-spirits,
as well as the giants that warred with God."
In different tales at different times, elves alternated between good and bad. As with fairies, elves eventually developed a reputation for pranks and mischief, and strange daily occurrences were often attributed to them. According to folklorist Carol Rose in her encyclopedia "Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins" (Norton, 1998), though elves were sometimes friendly toward humans, they were also known to take "terrible revenge on any human who offends them. They may steal babies, cattle, milk, and bread or enchant and hold young men in their spell for years at a time.”
However, by the time of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in the 1590s, elves were much represented as being much less malignant and more mischievous. Puck in that story is represented as a jokester and trickster.
The representation of elves as part of the Christmas tradition however is much more recent.
Around the mid 19th century, as Christmas became popular again as a festival, famous Scandinavian writers including Abraham Viktor Ryberg and others began associating elves with Santa Claus and portraying them as unequivocally good (albeit still mischievous) creatures who helped Santa Claus.
Across the Atlantic the same ideas were catching on. In the United States, an 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (and more famously known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) referred to Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf”, marking the first known instance of elves being associated with Christmas. In 1856, Louisa May Alcott (she of “Little Women” fame) write a book titled “Christmas Elves”, which was never published. In 1857, Harper’s Bazaar published a poem called “The Wonders of Santa Claus” which tells how Santa “keeps a great many elves at work.” Godey's Lady's Book, another influential magazine, featured an illustration in its 1873 Christmas issue titled "The Workshop of Santa Claus," which showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves (see below). Austin Thompson’s The House of Santa Claus, a Christmas Fairy Show for Sunday Schools (a great title if there ever was one), published in 1876, also played an instrumental role in further popularizing the image of Santa’s elves to the world.
By the end of the 1800s though, the notion of Santa and his elves had been firmly established in the popular imagination, so much so that when Norman Rockwell painted Santa in 1922, it was only natural to include his elves. And in 1932, Disney made a short movie called "Santa's Workshop" that showed bearded, blue-clad elves singing, prepping Santa's sleigh, brushing reindeer teeth and helping Santa with the naughty/nice list. You know they’ve become firmly enmeshed in the modern Christmas lexicon when they’ve become Disneyfied.
Icelandic Elves Are Bad!
According to a bunch of different sources (here, here and here), Icelandic lore lists 13 elves, better known as the “Yule Lads”. The names are completely unpronounceable, so I am not even sure why I am putting them down.
- og Kertasnikir
You definitely don’t want to mess with Icelandic elves though. The 13 Yule Lads in Iceland leave gifts in your shoes (yes, your shoes!). And if you’ve been bad they don’t leave you a lump of coal; instead their mother, the ogress Grýla will come and eat you up.
Oh yeah, and in German (even today) "albtraum" is the word for nightmare, which literally means "elf dream"
About My Book:
If you’ve read this far, excuse the shameless plug. It’s a personalized children’s book with photographs. The book can be personalized with your child as the main protagonist and you can also upload your own photos and make them part of the story, so the book serves as both a great story and a beautiful keepsake photo album to treasure. We call them PhotoStories.
The story is about an elf named Jingles who’s first assignment as a Christmas elf is to find out whether your child has been naughty or nice. Unfortunately he leaves the window open in your house and the notorious and nasty Grrrimp manages to come in. The Grrrimp hates all things Christmas, and starts eating up all the Christmas decorations in the house. See how your child saves the day (and Jingles’ job!).