The American ‘Elf on a Shelf’ is a continuation of a centuries-long tradition; namely, the House Elf. Introduced by Louisa May Alcott in 1856, the modern version has roots in the Swedish Tomte and the Danish Nisse. And lest we forget, Santa is a “right jolly old elf”.
Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves, originally these creatures were under three feet tall, wore conical caps, and were considered a beneficial member of the household. But when we delve deeper into their origin we find the ancient roots of ancestor veneration. These otherworld entities could either be attached to a location, or a beloved family member who has passed on but lingers to watch over their family.
As far-fetched as this may sound today, this was a common worldwide belief. Elves are found in almost every world culture. For example, this day in ancient Rome was called Larentalia – a holiday to honor the Lares, or “hero-ancestors; guardians of hearth and fields; bringers of fruitfulness”. Among some of the Old European tribes, these beings were called Wights, beings of “land, sea, and sky”, and were akin to the Fylgja, or the “follower” that watches over ever individual. All total, they were considered Vǫrðr, meaning “warden; watcher” of one’s soul.
The word ‘elf’ is strictly English, from Old English ælf. The idea was so strong that it was shared among the Germanic tribes (alp), the Old Norse (alfr), the Albanians (elb), the Irish (ailbhin), and finally into Latin (albus). And via this latter, the idea found its way into Church-speak / interpretation; first as a gloss for ‘satan’, later as angelic beings.
In any case, the traditional elf-names tell us their role in daily life:
-Ælfwaru, “elf-guardian”, and
-Alfred (Old English Ælfrēd), “elf-advice”, to name a few. Notably, these all became personal names, so that children were named after or for elves. And since I already mentioned Tolkien, lets include”
Today elf history is alive in well in place-names such as Eldon Hill and Elvenden in Englang (“Elves’ Hill” and “Elves Valley”, respectfully). By far, however, are the elf names – and veneration – in modern-day Iceland, where they will change a road’s course, or not even construct a building unless first consulting with the Huldufólk, the “hidden folk”.
I dare say, the plate of cookies and glass of milk that Americans leave out is for the Elves; and again, Santa too is an elf (“good cheer”). So it is easy enough, on this Fourth Night, to honor the Sprites, Elves, Wights, Lares, Fairies, Gnomes, and the like, who you may share a roof with.