Canadian cartoon mystery finally solved after 6 years, thanks to the internet

The origin of a mysterious Canadian cartoon character in the back of a family photo from the early 1990s has been solved thanks to the internet and two brothers in Wisconsin.

A '90s cartoon elf sparked a years-long quest by citizen sleuths, gaining new steam from Toronto man's tweet

This cartoon elf, seen in the background of a family photo taken by Emily Charette's father in 1992, sparked a years-long search for its origins. (Will Sloan/Twitter)

How well can you remember the names of cartoon characters from your childhood?

Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Pikachu are easy enough. But a non-descript cartoon elf seen in a Christmas photo has had the internet stumped for years, with some losing sleep trying to figure out exactly where it came from.

And perhaps none more than Emily Charette, whose dad first took the photo at their Ottawa home in 1992.

Charette stumbled across the photo again some years ago. But that elf, with grey hair, a beard, glasses and overalls, has had her perplexed ever since.

"It just drives you crazy. It's like when you think you can remember an actor's name or something is on the tip of your tongue," she said. 

So in 2016, when the marketing agency where she was employed decided to hold an office photo-guessing contest, Charette decided to submit the photo hoping her co-workers would be able to work out the elf's origins.

Emily Charette, centre, poses in a picture with her older brother and sister in 1992 over the Christmas holidays at their family home in Ottawa. (Submitted by Emily Charette)

No matter who she showed it to, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint where the character was from. Unable to solve the mystery, Charette and her friends turned to the internet, posting an image of the photo online.

That spawned a years-long search by citizen sleuths all over the globe that finally culminated in an answer last week.

'For a week, this was my full-time job'

What, did you think we'd tell you the answer right away?

In 2016, Sophie Campbell, an illustrator for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in New York, heard about the elf from some friends at the agency.

Searching for an answer, she posted about the mystery elf on her Tumblr page — even offering a cash reward for anyone who could solve the case with evidence.

"All of these suggestions started coming in and my friend and I were watching all these old terrible cartoons," Campbell told CBC Toronto.

Sophie Campbell posted about the mystery elf on her Tumblr page in 2016 — even offering a cash reward for anyone who could solve the case with evidence. (Sophie C/Tumblr)

Inundated with tips, Campbell watched more than 30 old cartoons in search of an answer, all to no avail. 

"For a week, this was my full-time job … keeping up with this stupid thing on Tumblr," she said. "And then, it kind of faded."

But the online posts continued to garner occasional attention over the years, with Campbell getting sporadic messages from strangers inquiring if she'd cracked the case.

Trail goes cold until viral post

Enter Will Sloan, a Toronto writer who first heard about the photo in 2019 from his girlfriend. 

Curious about the mystery, Sloan created his own posts on Twitter and Reddit in search of hot leads. Another three years passed with no luck. The trail was cold as ever.

"Then a couple of days ago my partner said, 'Hey, you have more Twitter followers than you did in 2019. Could you post it one last time? Maybe we can finally crack this mystery once and for all,'" he said. 

Post he did. And this time it went gangbusters, setting off another flurry of attempts at identifying the enigmatic elf.

A few days later, the enduring mystery was finally put to rest. 

After six years and over 11 million views on social media, two brothers from the U.S. finally solved the case.

'Oh my God, this is it!'

Lucas and Josh Rastia, from Green Bay, Wis., had no idea an old VHS tape collecting dust in their house would be the key to unlocking the internet mystery.

Josh Rastia — who doesn't use Twitter or Tumblr and was not previously aware of the photo — learned about the mystery while on YouTube last week.

That's when the two realized they might know the answer.

By happenstance, a few years ago Lucas Rastia had been in search of a Christmas special that he grew up watching. So he started searching for obscure cartoons.

Lucas Rastia, left, and Joshua Rastia from Green Bay, Wis., say they're happy to have solved this Canadian cartoon mystery. (CBC)

"I just started going down the rabbit hole," he said.

After nearly giving up, he finally found the show in a compilation VHS box set he had bought on eBay. Among the tapes was a TV movie called The Soulmates: The Gift of Light, created in 1991 by Canadian screenwriter Gabrielle St. George.

Josh said he looked at Charette's photo several times to make sure it matched the elf on his brother's tape.

"Finally, watching this thing all the way through, I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is it,'" he said.

A VHS copy of The Christmas Gift of Light can be seen here from the Rastia brothers' collection in Wisconsin. (Submitted by Lucas and Joshua Rastia)

The brothers sent the answer to a friend who posted to Sloan's Twitter thread, which by that point had several thousand views.

"We found it.… My god in heaven, I can't believe it," Sloan replied.

The mystery even caught the attention of the cartoon's creator, St. George, who said she had no idea her decades-old cartoon elf had become an internet mystery. According to St. George, the special aired on CBC for five years and was sold internationally before it went to video.

'Definitely' adding cartoon to Christmas movie list

The Rastias say they're just happy to preserve a piece of history and solve a mystery that had so many feeling like kids again.

Meanwhile, Charette says she never imagined a family photo taken 30 years ago would become such a phenomenon.

"I was like, 'Holy crap,'" she said. "I've been loving this whole adventure of the elf cartoon mystery. That's the power of the internet."

Her family is enjoying the moment too, said Charette.

"My parents just think it's awesome. We're definitely adding this movie to my Christmas movie list for years to come."

Emily Charette says after six years she was shocked to know someone had found the answer to the mystery cartoon. (CBC)


Derick Deonarain is a producer for CBC News who grew up in the Northwest end of Toronto. When he's not chasing breaking news you can often find him covering stories that meet at the intersection of culture, social justice, sports and art.