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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.”

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Columbine: The Rainbow Magic Christmas books introduce several fairies who have special Christmassy duties. In case you do not know the Rainbow Magic series, they all star those brave and resourceful girls, Rachel Walker and Kirsty Tate, friends of the fairies. The villains of the series are Jack Frost and his goblins, whose meanness and greed cause havoc both in Fairyland and in the human world. I sometimes think that the fairies are a little too dependent on the girls’ help; you would think they could sort out a problem or two on their own now and then, especially as they can practice magic quite freely in the human world. But then the girls are always so very willing to help, and have very good ideas about ways to use the fairy magic – and they are rather bigger than Jack and the goblins, while the fairies are really tiny. Quite often though it seems necessary for the girls to be shrunk down to fairy size to carry out their plans. I’m sure that is a big part of the fun for them!

Blonde Rachel and brunette Kirsty live some miles apart, but often visit each other. In the special Christmas books they usually spend the time before Christmas together, then split up to enjoy Christmas Day with their families. As if preparing for Christmas isn’t exciting enough, they are called on to stop Jack Frost from ruining the celebrations for everyone. It’s not that Jack doesn’t like Christmas: he loves parties and presents; but he has no Christmas spirit: he’s very selfish and doesn’t consider other people.

There are lots of Christmas doings in the books: shopping for presents, posting cards, picking out and decorating the tree, going carolling, making paper chains, stirring the Christmas pudding and so on. One time they take part in a pantomime and another they go on a skiing holiday. I especially like the many simple but entertaining illustrations and some of the magical solutions to problems are quite ingenious!

The books in the Christmas series are:
Holly the Christmas Fairy
Stella the Star Fairy
Paige the Pantomime Fairy
Chrissie the Wish Fairy
Gabriella the Snow Kingdom Fairy

holly-coverHolly is in charge of putting the sparkle into Christmas. She wears red boots and a red hooded dress with a white furry trim, and with an outfit like than it won’t surprise you that she spends a lot of time with Father Christmas and his elves. She even teaches the reindeer to fly!

Holly needs Rachel and Kirsty’s help when Jack Frost makes off with Santa’s sleigh. When Jack realized he had been too naughty that year to deserve any presents, he decided to steal some intended for good little girls and boys. Though he opens lots of presents – and before Christmas Day too – he is still dissatisfied, “Why can’t I get a really nice present?” he wonders. Shockingly we find he is even prepared to steal the Fairy King’s present.

The most exciting part of this adventure is when the girls venture into Jack Frost’s ice castle and are captured by the goblins. Kirsty’s clever trick turns Jack’s greed against him, and the girls get to fly Santa’s sleigh home in triumph. What could be a better Christmas treat than that?

Holly the Christmas Fairy is the first of the Rainbow Magic Christmas books by Daisy Meadows.

Stella the Star Fairy is dressed in Christmas green and red, with a string of fairy lights round her waist and a feather boa round her neck. She is responsible for Christmas illuminations, Christmas tree lights and the stars that guide Santa’s sleigh. Her magic is tied to three decorations on the Fairyland Christmas tree: a candle, a bauble and a star, so when the goblins steal them she is very worried and asks Rachel and Kirsty for help.

The girls have already noticed things going wrong – the town’s Christmas lights have gone out, and their own tree’s fairy lights are broken – but they didn’t realize how serious it was. If they don’t get the magic star back by Christmas Eve, there won’t be any presents!

As usual, there are some very funny moments. It made me laugh when the goblin was torn between holding onto the candle and having his hands free to unwrap sweets. And you can’t help but smile at Kirsty’s father being so proud of having fixed the fairy lights when you know it has more to do with the rescue of the bauble. It is also funny that when Stella disguises the girls as goblins so that they can infiltrate the goblin village, they have to do their own mean and grumpy expressions – fairy magic can’t duplicate those!

Jack Frost doesn’t appear in this book, which concentrates on the goblins. It is sweet how the goblins seem to appreciate Christmas. All bundled up for the wintry weather, they can easily pass for human children. Rachel and Kirsty spot one singing Christmas carols in the town square, and others throwing snowballs after building a snow goblin. In the goblin village, Goblin Grotto, the goblins are having a party round their Christmas tree in the centre of the village, carrying lanterns, eating hot pies and singing carols. It is all very cosy. I hope they recover from the girls’ visit!

Stella the Star Fairy is one of the Rainbow Magic Christmas books by Daisy Meadows.

It spells trouble when Jack Frost doesn’t get the part he wants in the Fairyland pantomime – Prince Charming (some hopes!) – and decides to take his revenge by ruining all Christmas performances. Paige, a very cute fairy in a sparkly pink ballet dress, looks after the Christmas shows including pantomimes. As you’ll know if you have ever taken part in one, a lot can go wrong: with the costumes, the scenery, the props, not to mention the actors fluffing their lines, or the dancers falling over! Normally Paige can keep disasters to a minimum with her three magical items: the ballet shoe, the horseshoe and the glass slipper, but with Jack and his goblins out to steal them anything can happen.

Kirsty and Rachel are dancing in Cinderella, so they are naturally keen to help Paige. In between rehearsals they manage to track down the goblins who have taken the ballet shoe and the horseshoe, but the worst problem comes in the show itself. Jack Frost tries to get hold of the magical glass slipper, which is masquerading as one of the props, by acting in the pantomime himself (not as Prince Charming, however). His antics cause anxiety on stage but much hilarity in the audience.

Queen Titania and King Oberon find a really thoughtful way to thank the girls for their help at the end – but I won’t spoil the surprise!

Paige the Pantomime Fairy is one of the Rainbow Magic Christmas books by Daisy Meadows.

One snowy day, Rachel and Kirsty have a strange encounter with a goblin in a pillar box before meeting Chrissie, who floats down on a snowflake wearing a white party dress trimmed with red. She has heard from Holly that Jack Frost has sent goblins to hunt for her magic card, magic spoon and magic carol sheet.

Chrissie has hidden them in the mortal world, apparently at random, to help spread seasonal wishes and make them come true. These Christmas fairies are not very good at keeping an eye on their responsibilities it seems! Perhaps it is something to do with having three things to look after. Eventually Chrissie decides that the goods will be safest at Rachel’s house, especially as the goblins are scared of her dog Buttons.

One of the high points is when two goblins fight over the magic spoon which makes all Christmas food taste delicious, and make a terrible mess in the kitchen. When Chrissie crossly confronts the goblins, they actually seem quite scared of her. Mrs Walker has taken Buttons for a walk, but Mr Walker nearly catches them! Another exciting moment is when the girls (fairy-sized) and Chrissie are going down a chimney and see a letter floating upwards to summon Jack Frost.

All ends happily, thanks to the girls’ wise use of a wish, even for Jack and the goblins. A Happy Christmas all round. Now that is the way to end a book!

Chrissie the Wish Fairy is one of the Rainbow Magic Christmas books by Daisy Meadows.

gabriela-coverKirsty and Rachel are having a holiday at a winter sports resort and looking forward to the Winter Festival, when they notice the snow is unusually hard: painful to fall on, pretty useless for building snowmen and downright dangerous for snowballs. When a fairy pops up, you can pretty much guess – those light-fingered goblins have been at it again. Gabriella, who is definitely an outdoor fairy, sensibly wears furry earmuffs and carries a white fur muff.

Gabriella’s Magic Snowflake, hung every year on the Fairyland Christmas Tree, makes snow soft and fluffy. Now it is gone… with goblin footprints round the tree. Spotting some goblins playing in some suspiciously nice snow nearby, Gabriella turns the girls into snowmen so they can approach and snatch the sparkly snowflake away. But they are seen and the goblins race away on sleds and snowboards only to plough into a big snowdrift. It seems they were acting on Jack Frost’s orders – he is throwing a big party and wanted to provide good snow for his own guests. I don’t see why he shouldn’t have it for a short time – but of course he would never just ask, and stealing is always wrong.

Also missing is the potion of Festive Cheer, kept in a silver chest in the fairy palace. Doing his own dirty work this time, Jack snuck in amusingly disguised as a carol singer. At Jack’s Ice Castle Gabriella disguises Rachel and Kirsty as delivery girls bringing a cake for the party. The picture shows a gorgeous cake: designed like a toboggan slide it has a tiny figure of Jack Frost on a marzipan sledge, snow geese and some goblins playing. The girls see goblins preparing for the party, and they meet the goblin chef who is preparing festive food. It proves easy to get back the Festive Spirit – it has put Jack into such a good mood he just hands it over!

Unfortunately the good mood is only temporary. Furious at being ‘tricked’, Jack sends goblins to steal the Firestone, without which it will be very chilly in the human world (and no fireworks!). However, the girls overhear the goblins wondering what to get Jack as a present for his party since he already has everything he needs – and Rachel has the bright idea of having Gabriella magic up an ice sculpture of Jack Frost himself for the goblins to give him. They agree to exchange it for the Firestone, and Jack really likes it (vain old thing!). It doesn’t say how his party went, but Jack in a good humour would make all the difference, I’m sure.

Gabriella the Snow Kingdom Fairy is one of the Rainbow Magic Christmas books by Daisy Meadows.

The little Christmas tree was born
And dwelt in open air;
It did not guess how bright a dress
Some day its boughs would wear;
Brown cones were all, it thought, a tall
And grown-up Fir would bear.

O little Fir! your forest home
Is far and far away;
And here indoors these boughs of yours
With coloured balls are gay,
With candlelight, and tinsel bright,
For this is Christmas Day!

A dolly-fairy stands on top,
Till children sleep; then she
(A live one now!) from bough to bough
Goes gliding silently.
O magic sight, this joyous night!
O laden, sparkling tree!

by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)