Tales of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas date back hundreds of years. But the idea of small elves helping him is a relatively recent creation.
Louisa May Alcott is belived to have been the first to mention these elves by name in her 1850 unpublished book, Christmas Elves. In 1857, Harper's Weekly published a lengthy poem called "The Wonders of Santa Claus." The poem referred to elves at work making millions "of pretty things, cakes, sugar-plums, and toys, to fill the stockings" of little girls and boys.
The poem helped to popularize the idea, and in 1873, an illustration on the cover of Godey's Lady's Book presented one of the first depictions of Santa and his elves. Illustrations in Austin Thompson's 1876 The House of Santa Claus also helped familiarize people with Christmas elves. And in the 1920s, famed painter Norman Rockwell depicted Santa and his elves rushing to get a dollhouse built in time for Christmas.
It wasn't long before elves made the leap to the big screen. Most famously, in the 1964 film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of the main characters is an elf named Hermey who wants to be a dentist.
In the 2000s, elf popularity skyrocketed with the introduction of the Elf on a Shelf doll. Developed from a family tradition, these elves visit homes during the holidays and report back to Santa.