Walk a mile in pointy shoes, and you'll understand why elves have been called the workhorses of Christmas. Consider the team of mall elves, who usher you through the Santa experience.
How many elves does it take to see Santa Claus?
When essayist David Sedaris first read "Santaland Diaries" on the air for National Public Radio, he counted 15. The essay about his experience as a part-time Macy's elf called Crumpet launched his career in 1992.
To become a Macy's elf, Sedaris filled out 10 pages of forms, completed a multiple-choice personality test, underwent two interviews and submitted urine for a drug test.
He failed the urine test, he said, but he got the elf job because he was short.
"Santaland Diaries" is an elf story, a tribute to the little guys who make this holiday possible.
Elves everywhere, we salute you.
Who can forget Forgetful? The long-faced elf played by John Eisenberger was one of two helper elves on "A Visit With Santa." Forgetful and Grumbles (Gene Brooks) helped make the 15-minute program WBEN-TV's longest running children's show.
It aired from 1948 to 1973, and made history in 1954, when it became the first of the station's programs to be broadcast in color, according to "Hi There, Boys and Girls!: America's Local Children's TV Shows," published in 2001 by Mississippi University Books and written by Tim Hollis.
"A Visit With Santa" aired daily at 5 p.m. from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, and was created by WBEN-TV pioneer Fred Keller, according to Steve Cichon on staffannouncers.com. Cichon estimated the show sparked 50,000 letters to Santa each year from children in the Buffalo area.
Playwright Tom Dudzick, who wrote about his Buffalo digs in a trilogy of plays starting with "Over the Tavern," remembered the holiday program for one annual occurrence:
"One of my most treasured memories is that final Christmas Eve broadcast, when some studio technician attached wires to the toy reindeer and sleigh. As the closing music played, we watched Santa and his reindeer magically lift off into the sky, on his way to our house.
"I still love that unsung technician for taking the trouble to add that extra touch of magic," Dudzick wrote in a Buffalo News Viewpoints column in 1999. "Did he know that I would recall it every Christmas for the next 40 years?"
Elves, as well as other creatures who don't normally exist on Earth, come alive on the pages of literature in countries around the world.
"They are used in a mythological context sometimes to help explain things that would otherwise not be explainable," said Craig Werner, associate professor emeritus in the English Department at Buffalo State College.
"They also satisfy our need for imagination, especially for children who are looking for creatures never seen or heard before," Werner said. "I think it's a natural human indulgence to imagine these creatures."
That is why elves are so rarely described in children's literature. In fact, according to Werner, the story often preceded the illustration, as was the case in the fairy tales by Brothers Grimm of Germany and the Danish Hans Christian Andersen.
"Fairy tales give very little description of elves," said Werner. "We don't know too much about the way they look. The elves in the Grimm Brothers 'The Shoemaker and the Elves' are originally naked; the shoemaker feels sorry for them and decides to make them coats and shoes."
Literary elves play tricks, like Puck in William Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," who causes mischief while helping people fall in love. While elves are often industrious, they can be impish, according to Werner.
Hex Kleinmartin, a lecturer and archaeologist, has taught "Religion, Magic and Culture" at Buffalo State College. His elf theory draws upon the supernatural aspect of culture.
"Gods take care of the big stuff, but elves and brownies and pixies do the little stuff," said Kleinmartin. "So it makes sense that if you have a Santa Claus or Kris Kringle -- someone who will be delivering presents -- little forces will help.
"Dwarves are different," he said. "They're not as nice. In Ireland, little people can be leprechauns. There's a whole bunch of gnomes that come from Scandinavia -- different place, different names. The New World is a little different. Native Americans had totems that were animals."
J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing about elves long before he published "The Hobbit" in 1937. Tolkien's elves -- one of the races that inhabit his fictional Middle-earth, appear in "The Hobbit" and in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but their story is more completely described in "The Silmarillion," his first written book but the last published.
>Big brother elf
Self-published in 2005 by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell, "The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition," has sold more than 2 million copies. The book set comes with a holiday book and vintage toy elf to remind children Santa is tracking the naughty and nice.
Actress Jennifer Garner has been photographed carrying the book set, according to Business Journals Digital Network. Celebrities including Kelly Ripa and Scary Spice (aka Melanie Brown) have said the phenomenon has become a holiday habit.
Radio personality Heather Perry, whose voice is heard afternoons on 104.1 WHTT-FM, has two children, Dylan, 6, and Jack, 8. The children, who received their shelf elf three years ago for Christmas, named him Dovey. Perry explained the concept:
"The elf sits in your house and watches your kids all day," Perry said. "And at night he flies back to the North Pole and reports to Santa. Everyday when Dovey gets back, he's in a new location, and your kids have to find him.
"They're not allowed to touch him or else he loses his magic," Perry added. "Right now he's in our Christmas tree. Sometimes he sits in the kitchen. He's been on the mantle a bunch of times."
Sometimes it's stressful to keep up with the elf magic, Perry noted, and pointed to a Facebook page created for angst-filled parents who forgot to relocate their elf.
>Pop culture elves
In the 2003 movie "Elf," Will Farrell plays the role of big elf Buddy Hobbs. The movie tells the story of Buddy, a man raised as an elf at the North Pole who sets off to find his true identity.
Smurfs -- comic strip characters created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in 1958 -- are good natured like many elves. Unlike elves (who tend to be green), smurfs are a deep sky blue. The critical credential smurfs lack, said Werner, is the literary context.
"But all of these things are blurred," he said. "Even dwarf. It's really hard to draw a distinction."
Not so with the animated Keebler (cookie) Elves, who live in a tree. Created in 1968, they work out of their home in a bakery called "The Hollow Tree Factory." The cookie elves, who appear to have magical powers, only eat icing-covered dough.
Finally a clue to the dietary preferences of elves. The Elf Cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles features organic vegetarian food.
No wonder the little guys have such energy.