The Evolution of Elves

"I think,” my daughter Maria announced, “goblins should be green.”

We had just attended a play based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I was arguing that the goblins’ normal, human skin tones were correct. “You see,” I told her, “in Middle Earth, goblins are just degenerate elves.”

Orcs,” she corrected me, “are degenerate elves.”

“Goblins are just small orcs.”

“So what were they?” she scoffed. “Small elves?”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “they  . . . degenerated?”

Maybe,” Maria informed me, “they just got tired of making toys for Santa.”

The Evolution of Elves

So how did elves get associated with Christmas? How did they go from feasting with the Norse gods in Äsgard to working the assembly lines at the North Pole? And is it a good idea to have them over for the holidays?

Beliefs about elves have changed drastically over the centuries. Elf is not just an old word, it is a very, very old word. Back when the only English was Old English, and men and women were wera and wīfa, an elf was still an ælfstill recognizable after more than a thousand years. But the word elf has not always meant the same thing.

Over the past centuries, three major events changed the perceptions of elves. First, the arrival of Christianity dethroned them as gods. Then the Reformation shrank them. And finally, the American Revolution sent them to the North Pole.

The Old Elves

Rebecca Sicree writes from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. She and her family attend Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in nearby State College. She and her husband Andrew have ten children, six of whom are now adults.

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