How elves won—and lost—Halloween

This year’s most popular Halloween costumes are likely to be a pop culture melange: some Elsa, some Groot, and maybe a Ninja Turtle or two. While there’s a chance you’ll see a sheet with eyeholes cut out, spooky costumes have long been on the wane.

But that change is just half the story. Halloween didn’t start as a spooky holiday, but as a magical one. And that’s nowhere more obvious than in the history of Halloween elves. Yes, elves.

Early American Halloween was influenced by Celtic history, Scottish tradition, and Christian practice

Most people know the basics: Halloween is All Hollow’s Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day, the Christian holiday celebrating the saints. The church occasionally held vigils on Halloween to prepare for the holiday the next day.

Quickly, however, that religious concept of Halloween meshed with pagan, Celtic, Scottish, and other celebratory interpretations. Many credit Samhain for Halloween festivities, and it’s easy to see traces of the Pagan feast of the dead in Halloween celebrations. The two holidays quickly intermingled in the ways they were celebrated (like most modern holidays, disentangling the disparate sources is a difficult task).

Elves ruling medieval Halloween wouldn’t be exceptional, but they persisted well into the 20th century, making mischief and avoiding Santa for at least a few more decades.

Elves take over Halloween

We think of elves as Santa’s servants, Germanic folklore, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s heroes, and Halloween elves drew from all of those archetypes: they were mischevious, but otherworldly, and they were chaotic, yet part of a defined hierarchy. Intermingled with spooks and witches, the mythological clash is hard to overlook.

That meant elves played alongside horror. In 1905, the mischievous creatures were part of the Halloween myth—Santa only had the reindeer to help out. Observers at the time recognized elves as strange pagan/Christian bedfellows, but that didn’t stop the celebration. Elves regularly pulled pranks alongside imps, wrecking property in ways that would put them on Santa’s naughty list, and they partied with imaginary witches. Poets proclaimed it was the holiday “when elves and goblins hide themselves in crannies and in nooks.”

Elves were strange bedfellows for spooks and goblins. That confusion is one of the reasons we’ve forgotten about their bizarre Halloween history today.

Slowly, the elves disappear behind the pumpkins (and go to Santa’s workshop)

As holidays changed, the elves changed with them. In 1921, Halloween elves were “doing kind deeds,” and it’s likely that as Christmas became more commercialized and mythologized, elves transitioned to Santa’s workshop. The transition wasn’t instant—as late as 1951, school plays included Halloween Elves who, in the style of German folklore, hailed the Halloween King. But eventually it became clear that elves would be Christmas assistants and leave behind their pagan and Germanic roots (except in adaptations that explicitly bucked the Christmas trend).

Elves may be gone, but like all transformations in holidays, it could be temporary. If you try to dress as an elf this Halloween, you’ll have trouble finding anything but a Christmas elf costume, but there’s always potential to bring the merry pranksters back, because Halloween’s appeal is, elementally, the same as it always has been. As one 1904 poem said:

When Hallowe’en is almost past

And earthlings seek their bed at last

The fairy folk come out to play

At mortal pranks at peep of day.

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Will you dress as a Halloween elf this year?