Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
I was going to plunge right into the yuletide festivities, but as is their wont, the pint-sized stars of this year’s Christmas show wanted to pitch in and spice things up with a little musical number. And I didn’t dare turn them down because, well… you’ll see.
Okay. I think they’re ready…
Yes, the Christmas elf. They’re as much a yuletide staple as old Claus himself. But while I’ve devoted many Christmas shows to the darker origins of that mythical bringer of gifts, I’ve never stopped to consider the workers toiling away to make those gifts. Who are they? Where did they come from?
Well, as with most everything else associated with this holiday, the answer is wonderfully weird and creepy. So strap in! It’s time for another Christmas, DeFlip Side style!
To begin with, the elves as we think of them—toymaking Claus minions—come from the mythic traditions of deepest, darkest Philadelphia, circa 1873. That’s where a magazine named Godey’s Lady’s Book published a woodcut illustration featuring Santa and his elves. Though Godey’s wasn’t the first to come up with it, the wildly popular and influential magazine cemented the idea of Christmas elves into the popular consciousness.
But our American elves are rooted in a much older tradition of small, helpful yet oftentimes dangerous creatures found mainly in Norse and Scandinavian folklore. And here’s where it gets interesting.
Scandinavians have legends of farm servants called tomtes or nisses—small creatures with tremendous strength, sometimes portrayed with four fingers and a single, monstrous eye; other times they’re shapeshifters. But the tomte is most commonly depicted as a little man with a red or gray cap and a long grey beard—kind of like a lawn gnome.
However it looks, a tomte is actually a good thing to have around your farm, because it’ll help you out during the day and watch over things at night. Just make sure to appease it with a daily offering of oatmeal. An angry tomte is something you do not want; retaliation can range from tying your cows’ tails together to burning down your farm. Some traditions even have them sitting on your head while you sleep and giving you bad dreams—just like the mares I told you about last Halloween. And a tomte’s bite is poisonous, often fatal.
So just where do these creatures come from? Why, from beyond the grave, of course! Traditionally, a tomte is the spirit of the first person who cleared the land and established the farm—risen out of burial mounds in the surrounding woods.
And here’s where we collide with Norse mythology. A tomte is a type of wight—a supernatural Norse creature that lives underground close to humans. But things get a little darker in the Norse version, where the tomtes are called Jólasveinn or Yule Lads.
The Yule Lads are the 13 dead sons of the monstrous troll Grýla—a horrific ice giantess who comes down from the mountains every Christmas to eat bad children. In folklore, the Yule Lads are ghostly pranksters who accompany Grýla, and when they’re not rounding up kids of their own to eat, they’re stealing things and causing trouble—usually the same kind of trouble that got them killed in the first place.
But over time the spectral and deadly nature of the Yule Lads and tomtes began to change, and soften as they became popular subjects for children’s books and folk art. By the 1840s, they had shifted from mischievous imps to givers of gifts. And the runaway popularity of the American Santa Claus sealed the deal. With their traditional red hats and white beards, tomtes have now taken on the mantle of Santa in Sweden and Norway and Denmark, though they still retain their traditional roots.
But it’s a two way street, and those roots are more influential than you realize. Because while the American Santa has co-opted these earlier folk traditions, he probably wouldn’t exist without them.
An illustrator named Haddon Sundblom pretty much single-handedly created our modern version of Santa Claus through a series of ads for the Coca-Cola company in the 1930s. His father was from Finland and his mother from Sweden. So Sundblom probably grew up hearing all about tomtes and the Yule Lads. It’s no great stretch of the imagination to figure out where he may have gotten the idea to give his version of Santa a red hat and white beard. Jolly old elf, indeed.
Which brings us back to where we started.
So when you see those industrious little buggers toiling away, remember that not only are they the facilitators of Christmas cheer; they’re Santa’s thrall army of zombie poltergeists who will burn your farm down and kill you with a bite. Is it any wonder that I let them take over at the top of tonight’s show? I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my oatmeal close at hand.