By Catherine McNulty

September 3, 2010 5 min read

Almost every culture has stories revolving around sprightly magical beings. Whether they are called fairies, pixies, leprechauns, brownies or uldras depends entirely on where you are in the world. And of course, there are elves. Elf. Just hearing the word conjures up images of a diminutive figure with pointy ears. From granting wishes to helping with household chores, elves have long played an important role in the world's mythology. What would Christmas be without Santa's elves? Who would make the toys and take care of the reindeer? But elves have not always been so nice. Long before elves were kindly purveyors of Christmas cheer, they were known as tricksters. Indeed, in Germany, nightmares sometimes are called "Alpdr?cken," which translates to "elf pressure." According to Judy Allen in the Fantasy Encyclopedia, this term came about "because it was thought that elves would sit on their victims' chests all night." Another nighttime inconvenience that was attributed to elves: bed head. That's right; your knotty, matted post-sleep hair was assumed to have been the result of elves sitting by you at night twisting your hair for their own amusement. Even certain illnesses were thought to be caused by elves breathing on you. Delving even further into elfish darkness is the tale of changelings. If a particularly charming child enchanted an elf, the elf would steal the child in the night and leave behind an ugly, cantankerous child in its place. Even elfish kin who generally have good intentions toward humans, such as pixies, "will be tricky and mischievous if they are annoyed or not properly rewarded," according to the Fantasy Encyclopedia. But for every elf who is willing to steal a child or just lead a traveler astray for his or her own enjoyment, there are plenty who help humans out. One of the most famous fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is the story of the elves and the cobbler. After observing a poor, honest shoemaker who is not earning enough to live, two elves make an exquisite pair of shoes for him that he is able to sell at a higher price, thus earning enough to buy more leather. And so the story goes; the elves continue to make the shoes, and the cobbler is able to keep buying more supplies. Of course, the cobbler has the good sense to reward the elves for their hard work. So how did elves end up as Santa's helpers? The leap to the North Pole isn't as long of one as you might think. Many of the origins of elves lie in German and Norse mythology. Particularly in Scandinavia, elves were seen as household helpers who would reward you if you were good and play tricks on you if you were bad. Often, the inhabitants of the house would leave bowls of porridge to keep the elves appeased. Over time, holiday celebrations became more and more elaborate, and elves were seen as key components of the season. Instead of living with common people, the elves had migrated north, and once a year, they set out to reward and punish the good and bad children of the world, respectively. Even the man of the season himself, Santa Claus, is considered an elf. The famous poem "Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas" (usually known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") describes him as such: "He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf." In true elfish fashion, he makes sure the good children of the world are given presents and the bad children of the world are left coal. Who can even imagine Christmas without elves? They are so ingrained in the holiday it is impossible. Even Hollywood has gotten in on the elf action. From "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's" dentist-in-the-making, Hermey, to Will Ferrell running around New York City in yellow tights in "Elf," elves are more prevalent than ever before. So if you've been good, you have nothing to fear. Come Christmas Day, sit back and reap your just rewards. But you might want to leave plenty of milk and cookies out as thanks anyway, lest you wake up from a bad dream on Christmas morning with terrible tangles in your hair.COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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