Getting Ready by John WalkerRobin: Everyone has heard of Santa’s elves. In fact, say “elf” and most people will think of these elves immediately. They are the splendid chaps who work all year in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole making toys and games for Christmas. Then they load all the goods onto Santa’s sleigh to be delivered all round the world on Christmas Eve.

They are very far from either the grand aristocratic elves of high fantasy or the tricksy woodland folk of old English lore. In short, they are craftsmen and by many accounts are as much of the human world as of faerie. Sometimes it is said that like Santa Claus himself they were once human but have stepped out of the everyday world.

Then again Santa himself has been called a “jolly old elf” in Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”!

The elves are widely depicted in art and literature, in films and popular culture generally, though often only in passing. Most often noted are their hard work, short stature, pointy ears and colourful clothing. Sometimes Santa’s workshop is seen as a traditional craft studio, sometimes the scope of the task has humans envisioning something more like a vast factory or a military operation!

I will add some examples over the coming week, but for the moment this is a very typical depiction in one of the books Columbine has been looking at: Holly the Christmas Fairy. When the heroines return Santa’s stolen sleigh to the North Pole, they meet the elves, and discover they have been working extra hard to replace the presents stolen by Jack Frost. The elves wear green tunics and pointed hats with bells on the end. They dance in the snow, pet the reindeer and feed them carrots, and scurry about with piles of presents to load onto the silver sleigh. Santa’s workshop is a large log cabin with icicles hanging from the pretty wooden roof.

elf-with-scrollIn a couple of Christmas films we see two different “modern” ideas:

In The Polar Express, the North Pole is like a huge city, all lit up. As the train drives through the city, a passenger says: “There should be elves, where are the elves?” and the conductor replies: “They are gathering in the centre of town. That’s where Santa will give the first present of Christmas.”

Sure enough, the centre of town is a sea of red-capped excited elves. These elves are about half human size, with high voices. Some of them skydive into the square! They all toss their Santa caps into the air once the sleigh is on its way. Then they have a big party!

Santa’s workshop is run like a military operation, with elves in red and green uniforms, and hi-tech surveillance of children, with walls of screens.

On the other hand, in The Santa Clause, Santa’s workshop is underground, beneath the North Pole (which is a red and white striped pole with an entry-pad attached). It does though seem more like a proper workshop than a factory. Santa’s elves are very like children except for pointy ears and silvery cheeks, & are actually mistaken for children by the new Santa until they correct him. They are not all dressed alike, but their clothes tend to be rather traditional and homespun. Bernard the head elf is a particularly tall, bossy, easily exasperated elf – one might even say cantankerous. They stress how long they live. Judy the elf presses a cocoa on Santa “My own recipe. Took me 1200 years to get it right.”

Later, when Santa is captured by the police, ELFS is deployed (that is, the Effective Liberating Flight Squad), flying elves, “elves with attitude” armed with tinsel who free Santa.

elf-with-scrollSanta’s elves, unlike his reindeer, have rarely been given names. I believe that in older Scandanavian stories they had real old Norse names like Bjugnakraekir or Skyrjarmur, but for some reason they never caught on. Occasionally in stories or films one or two have been singled out, like Bernard and Judy above, or JJ and Bon Bon in a silly film called Tooth which I may tell you about one day.

A new chocolate confection, “Magical Elves” by Cadbury, gives all the elves names, rather oddly the names of stones, like Amethyst and Topaz. These are little chocolate figures of elves which sparkle in your mouth (you really have to try them!).

magical-elvesThere is a story to go with them too: surprisingly these elves are from the South Pole. They have a special magical gift for making toys. Every year eight chosen elves are “sucked through the earth’s centre up a secret tunnel to [Santa’s] workshop where they merrily make toys”, and are rewarded with the chocolate they love. Apparently they are quite greedy for chocolate and Santa has to keep an eye on them.

Like the Never Fairies, they all have special talents and also besetting faults, which are described on the colourful wrappings. Here are two examples:

Peridot devises ideas and designs for all the gifts. He wraps every present that leaves the North Pole, but he has a bad temper and sometimes wraps up the other elves!
Quartz is a wonderful carpenter. He is responsible for building all the wooden toys for Santa. He is also a practical joker!

elf-with-scrollTo return to films: one of the most serious Christmas films is Santa Claus: The Movie, which gives elves a very important part in the legend.

Somewhere in the 14th Century, Claus is an aging, peasant woodcutter who delivers his gifts with his wife Anya to the children of a certain village. One night, Claus, Anya and their reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, are rescued from certain death in a blizzard, only to be transported to the vast “ice mountains, way up at the top of the world.” Their expected arrival is heralded with the appearance of several elves, or, as Claus’s people call them in their legends, the Vendequm, led by a wise, venerable old elf named Dooley. The kindly couple is then led into the wondrous, wooden elf compound. Dooley explains to Claus and Anya that they have been brought here to spend eternity crafting and giving a fantastic array of toys to every child on Earth.

Claus’s first Christmas Eve as Santa begins when he is greeted by the Ancient One, the oldest and wisest of all the elves, who explains to Claus that he and Anya represent the fulfilment of a prophecy that a “Chosen One” would be brought into the elves’ world who, “having no child of his own, would love all children everywhere, and that he himself would be an artisan, and a craftsman, and a skilled maker of toys.” He charges Santa with his sacred duties and the name by which he will be known throughout the world for all time to come: Santa Claus.

The second part of the film concerns the clever and zealous elf Patch who invents a method of making toys very fast – but is dismayed to find that they fall apart quickly when children start playing with them. He is so embarrassed he leaves the North Pole and goes to work for a toy maker in America. He creates some wonderful lollipops and is in danger of upstaging Santa, but soon realizes where his real loyalties lie.

Another film which focuses on an elf who feeling out of place or unwanted at the North Pole, ventures into the human world to find a new life is Elf. The main character is not a true elf, but an orphan human baby who crawled into Santa’s sack and was adopted by Papa Elf. Papa Elf introduces the story, explaining that making toys in Santa’s workshop is the job all elves aspire to, much better than mending shoes or baking cookies! “It is a job only elves can do – our nimble fingers, natural cheer and active minds are perfect for toy building. They tried using gnomes and trolls – but the gnomes drank too much and the trolls weren’t toilet-trained.”

This film also reveals “The Code of the Elves”, which is learnt by the little elves in school:
1) Treat every day like Christmas
2)There’s room for everyone on the Nice list
3)The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear

The human baby – called Buddy – grows up to be even taller than a normal human, towering over the other elves, and he doesn’t have their natural gift for making toys. Finding out he is adopted, he decides to visit the human world hoping to find family there. Unfortunately his upbringing has not prepared him for New York. (Not that I would recommend an upbringing that did!) Perhaps the best scene is when Buddy, having joined the “elves” at a department store Christmas Grotto, stays the night at the store to prepare it for Santa’s arrival and creates a wonderland. But it is quickly followed by the most embarrassing scene, where he denounces the store’s Santa as an imposter and attacks him!

The film ends with Buddy returning to the North Pole with a girl “elf” from the Grotto, reassured by Santa telling him: “You’re more of an elf than anyone I ever met.”