The American Elf on the Shelf
Since 2005, families have either enthusiastically or grudgingly hidden a toy elf every night from Thanksgiving until Christmas as part of a tradition known as “Elf on the Shelf.” Depending on how you feel about the tradition, you may either love it or hate it since C. Aebersold and her child C. Bell posted their Elf on the Shelf book. It’s been a Christmas Traditional beginning in 2005. And more than 13 million elves have been “adopted.” The book is included with the toy that is based on the popular Christmas tradition. Some parents have even been inspired to create complex scenarios for their elves thanks to social media, such as saying things like, “He TP’d the tree!” She stuffed marshmallows into the sink to the brim!
Before the shelf
In Germanic folklore, a spirit of any type became a little creature, generally human. The Prose, or Younger, Edda classified elves as light (fair) and dark (darker than pitch), similar to the Scottish seelie and unseelie courts. Elves were mischievous and volatile.
They were believed at various times and in various areas to inflict diseases in humans and animals, to sit on a sleeper’s breast and give him nightmares (often called ‘elven pressure’ in German), and to steal babies and replace them with changelings. Elf-bolts, elf-arrows, and elf-shot—now recognized to be prehistoric artifacts employed by the aboriginal Irish and early Scots—were believed to be the weapons elves used to kill livestock in the British Isles.
Elves sometimes helped. Elf belief “still subsists in many areas of our own land,” according to the second edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1777–84). Newborn children in the Highlands of Scotland are monitored until the christening to prevent them from being taken or transformed by these ghosts.
American elves, of course, are now most closely associated with our benign Santa Claus. They wouldn’t harm a fly.