USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘elves’
Customs
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Christmas Tradition

The informant is a 21 year old girl, and one of my closest friends. She told me about a tradition she takes part in at Christmas time every year.

Informant: So, every year, the day before Christmas, since we were little, my mom acts like she is the elf…  And puts out Christmas presents and rings a little bell. We all run into the living room, and there are presents. And they are our Christmas pajamas to wear so that when we wake up we are all matching in Christmas clothes.

Me: You used to think it was an elf though?

Informant: Oh, definitely I used to think it was an elf.

Me: And then she told you?

Informant: Well it was her handwriting.  Back when I thought it was the elves, I really thought it was them. I pictured them as the little ones, you know? Little guys with green and red hats and little outfits with little boots. Like the size of… a pencil… that height.

Me: When did you start practicing this?

Informant: As long as I can remember.

Me: When did you figure out it was your mom?

Informant: Probably in 4th or 5th grade I figured it out.

My analysis: When I first heard this story, I was not very drawn to it.  Christmas is somewhat the “go to” topic when talking about different traditions. Looking back, though, that in and of itself is what makes it so interesting. Once I interviewed another informant (transcribed under: Hungarian Christmas), I ended up coming back and rethinking this tradition.  Both of the informants talked about a very very similar Christmas tradition, but one learned it at her home in North Carolina and the other in Budapest, Hungary.  The concept is the same: some figure puts out presents the night before Christmas, a bell is rung, and kids can go see those presents the night before. Which one of these cultures started practicing this first is beyond me, but the fact that they all do gave me a newfound appreciation for something I originally did not think much of.

Folk Beliefs

Little House Elves

Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major.  He is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.  His family is from Mexico but he has lived in Southern California for nearly all of his life.

 

Context: I was talking to Fabian about Mexican stories and folklore.  He shared with me the following folk belief common among the people in Michocoan.

 

Item: “There’s, um, little house elves, um, they are mischievous and moves things in your sleep.  If you wake up in the middle of the night you’ll find milk outside the fridge, your shoes or socks out in random places.  The people who do that are these mischievous little house elves.  People, um try and stay up and try to see if they can catch them”.

 

Analysis: It is a way of explaining how things seemingly disappear or how random things move.  The elf part is similar to the cobbler elves in the U.S., where they come out and do things but you never end up seeing them.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Myths

Swedish Mythological Creature: Elves

Contextual Data: After talking to me about the Tomten, my friend mentioned that there was a similar tradition of elves in Sweden. They are seen as these mist-like creatures that come out at night over the lakes. The following is an exact transcript of conversation.

Informant: “One that I also think is really cool to talk about is, um…Has to do with elves. And in northern Sweden, when the temperature starts changing in the summer, um, you’ll get these clouds of mist [Mimes a sphere shape with her hands] that show up on like the lake surfaces — so the surfaces of the lakes, and obviously Sweden is one of the places that has, like, a ton of lakes just from the glacial paths and stuff. Um, and so at night obviously the lakes will be completely flat and then you’ll see these like balls of mist and the ball — and it’s weird because it’s not mist just like coating the lake, there are like balls of mist that are separate from each other, and I don’t know if it’s the wind or something but they kind of like twirl around. Um, and so when I was little and I saw them, my dad told me that they were, um…Elves that are dancing on the water and that’s kind of like a Swedish — well I mean at least in the northeastern part of Sweden where my family is from. Um…There’s this concept of the mist as being like the elves that come out of the forest at night and they dance on the water when you’re not watching. Um, and then of course by the morning — when the morning comes, the sun comes up and they disappear. So you can only see them in, like, the middle of the night when the temperature is just right… It’s actually really cool. And if you get too close, too, they kind of dissipate, so you can only see them — you can never actually get that close.”

Me: “Do you think that’s something they tell for the sake of the children? Or is there any other significance to it?”

Informant: “I think — That actually I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that—and one thing that I really love about northern Sweden is that, um, the connection between, like, humans and the land I think is much stronger than it is here in the U.S. or even maybe in more urbanized part of the country. Um, you know, people really—It’s remote. And you live out there, and my — I know my family, um, they built their house. Like, they cut down the logs and built the house, and then they — they built a boat to take them from the mainland to their house [Laughs]. I mean they’re very, like, they live off the land and in a way that a lot of people don’t now. I mean my…my…Like they weave their own blankets and I mean they’re…It’s really intense. Um, and just like I said: there’s this connection that doesn’t exist here… Um, and I think that people see — even adults see more magic in the land than we do now. And I think that’s something that, you know, while it’s for kids… I think people are more willing to accept it because they understand that nature has, like, a magical quality to it. You know…”

- End Transcript – 

My informant seemed to provide a pretty thorough account of why this tradition sticks around in Sweden. In particular, this idea of the elves as dancing on the water really does seem to speak to the perception of nature as having “a magical quality to it.” Beyond this, it also seems to be a way of making sense of an unusual natural phenomenon — this description of the mist as forming little balls or clusters over the lakes rather than just existing as a sort of loose blanket, as one might expect it to.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Myths
Narrative

The Gray Man

This is an Icelandic folktale. There was a farmer and his wife who lived out in the countryside. They never locked their door at night. One night an extremely large, gray man appeared. Without saying a word he went to their pantry, sat down and drank their milk. He then left.
The second night he came back, drank the milk and left again without a word.
The third night he came again, drank the milk but as he was about to leave he turned around and addressed the farmer and his wife: You would do well to lock your door, there are a lot worse things out there than me.

This a myth about Iceland’s hidden people. It illustrates the relationship between the people of Iceland and these fairy-like creatures. The farmer and his wife know the spirit keeps returning to their house, but they allow it and see the visits as benign. However the story is also a cautionary tale, and could be a bogeyman-type story to caution or encourage children, or even adults, to keep the doors of the house locked. The myth observes the rule of 3, which is predominant in the West.

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