Each and every year, we welcome figures like Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy into our homes with excitement, and why wouldn’t we? Their arrivals include a gift under a tree, in a basket, or under your pillow.
But have you ever stopped to think about the fact that we’ve all been convinced, since we were children, that these strange figures should be welcomed into our homes at night while we sleep? Or about the fact that to earn these presents, they have to watch us every minute of the day for a year to see if we’ve been good enough for a home invasion?
Jolly old Saint Nick just got a little scarier—here are the origin stories behind the creepy figures we let invade our space every year.
Valentine’s Day is an incredibly commercialized holiday these days, and we typically don’t see or hear much from Cupid anymore. However, he was once a fairly integral part of the holiday, even though his story was a little strange—a chubby child who flies around giving people crushes on one another by spearing them with arrows.
In Roman mythology, however, Cupid was the God of love, though he really wasn’t the loving, fat little cherub we all believe him to be. No, many paintings and works of literature actually depict Cupid as being quite mischievous, and someone who actually aimed to cause havoc within people’s personal relationships.
Don’t take our work for it, though. Just read this passage from The Most Pleasant and Delectable Tale of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, originally written by Lucius Apuleius in the late second century A.D.
[pullquote]Instantly she called her winged son, Cupid, rash enough, and hardy, who, by his evil manners, contemning all public justice and law, armed with fire and arrows, running up and down in the nights from house to house, and corrupting the lawful marriages of every person, doth nothing but that which is evil.[/pullquote]
They’re the cute little guys waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. They’re hopping away, shamrock-hatted, with their Lucky Charms. We think of leprechauns, mostly, as harmless elf-like creatures who cause a little mischief at most without going too crazy. However, in Irish folklore, they can actually be pretty tricky to deal with.
“Early leprechauns,” according to Ancient Origins, “were described as sly old men that wore red suits and were often found working on a solitary shoe.” There’s even evidence that before being deemed “leprechauns,” they were “voracious warriors,” both male and female, and lived underwater.
By the eighteenth century, a trope arose in leprechaun stories: if human captures a leprechaun (wealthy, land-living shoemakers at this point), the creature will usually grant three wishes in return for his freedom. Unfortunately for the wish maker, this situation tends to end up like the movie Bedazzled, where the wishes come true, but not in the way the wisher wanted.
In her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins, folklorist Carol Rose wrote about a common story of a man once catching a leprechaun and convinced it to show him a bush under which his riches were buried. As the story goes:
[pullquote]“Having no spade [shovel], the man marked the tree with one of his red garters, then kindly released the sprite and went for a spade. Returning almost instantly he found that every one of the numerous trees in the field sported a red garter!”[/pullquote]
And while, yes, they’ve mostly cleaned up their act in recent years, they could be the mean creatures from the movie Leprechaun.
The Easter Bunny
Each year, the Easter Bunny hops into our homes to leave us Easter treats, but have you ever wondered why, on a religious holiday that has absolutely nothing to do with rabbits?
Essentially, Easter became what it is today after Christians combined their celebrations of Christ’s resurrection with the traditional Pagan festival that celebrated Eostre (or Ostara), the goddess of dawn, fertility, and spring. Since Eostre’s image was closely linked with symbols of the egg and the hare, you can see how our egg hunts came to be.
However, kids still today aren’t cool with that giant bunny, especially when it comes to sitting on his lap in a mall. That same giant bunny they hated at the mall, though, can come into their house while they’re asleep—just as long as he leaves candy.
Stranger danger, anyone?
What’s not to love about Santa Claus?
He’s an elderly man who wants to live out the rest of his days giving out presents to the children of the world—and even you!—bringing boundless joy on Christmas Day. All he asks for in return is the chance to spy on you every minute of every day so he can find out if you’re worthy of his generosity. Find yourself on his “nice” list and he’ll sneak into your house at night and leave goodies behind.
Even creepier? Over time, Santa has become a mishmash of different figures from different cultures—Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle—but the worst of them all? Wodēn, a culture-spanning god who was known to lead the Wild Hunt during Yule, a Pagan event held mid-winter.
The Wild Hunt was essentially a parade of supernatural hunters who tore through the sky, and seeing it meant that disaster was surely near.
The Elf on the Shelf
Right up there with Santa is the Elf on the Shelf, an elf said to have been sent down from the North Pole to survey kids’ homes and make sure they’re being good. When the child falls asleep, the elf reports back to Santa and returns to the home by morning.
The trade-off for having a creature break into your home is that, while the kids are asleep, the elf gets into all sorts of trouble and leaves a funny scene for them to wake up to. Unlike Santa Claus, though, the elf doesn’t even leave any present behind—we’re just letting it break into our homes to do Santa’s recon! They wake up and this intruder has played with their toys, made a mess of their food, and gotten into tons of other trouble along the way.
The Elf on the Shelf is a youngin’ compared to the other figures on this list—it came about in 2004 with the aptly named children’s picture book, The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition. Before that? A family tradition of Carol Aebersold, who wrote the book with her daughter, Chanda Bell.
The Tooth Fairy
Ah, the Tooth Fairy, the magical flying being that wants your teeth.
While the modern tooth fairy didn’t really become a thing until sometime in the nineteenth century, tooth-loss traditions have been around for much longer. And according to Donald Capps and Nathan Carlin in The Tooth Fairy: Psychological Issues Related to Baby Tooth Loss and Mythological Working Through, “… virtually every country in the world has a lost tooth tradition involving a ritual performed by the child who has lost the tooth…”
Over the years, these traditions have included burning the baby teeth, burying the baby teeth, and giving them to animals. In the nineteenth century, it was the tooth mouse who started bring back small gifts—maybe a coin, maybe a snack. By the 1940s, the story had gone from mouse to fairy (besides in Spain, whose children still get gifts from El Ratoncito Peréz, pictured below), and became popular in parts of North America and Europe.
In Norse culture, Vikings actually paid kids for their discarded teeth, as they believed the teeth gave them good luck. Warriors wore their kids’ baby teeth around their necks during battle, like a really creepy necklace that somehow brought them good fortune. Europeans even once thought that witches could gain total control over a person if they were able to get ahold of their teeth—yikes.
As of February 2017, the average going rate for a single tooth was a whopping $4.66. Honestly, we’d let a fairy into our rooms for that kind of money.