Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters

tolkien4Writing to Santa is a time-honored tradition among English and American families who celebrate Christmas.  But did Santa ever write you back?  If so, I hope his letters were as entertaining as the correspondence “Father Christmas” carried on for over twenty years with J. R. R. Tolkien’s children, preserved with as much love as shone through their writing and published after Tolkien’s death as The Father Christmas Letters (later revised as Letters from Father Christmas).  Tolkien’s humor, inventiveness, and artistic talent made these letters a wonderful family tradition well worth sharing.

Beginning in 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was only three years old, Tolkien wrote his children a letter from Father Christmas at least once a year—more often in later years, acknowledging receipt of the children’s messages and promising a longer letter at Christmas.  Each letter is itself a work of art, written in a shaky hand to indicate Father Christmas’ great age and usually decorated somewhat in the style of medieval manuscripts.  But more often than not the letter is also accompanied by a drawing or watercolor that illustrated Father Christmas’ adventures at the North Pole, which are described in greater detail in the letters.

7331And such adventures Father Christmas has!  Most involve his friend and helper Karhu, the Great North Polar Bear, who causes all manner of mischief and often adds marginal peanut-gallery comments in a runic-looking hand, with spelling errors that would be completely at home on I Can Has Cheezburger.  Later letters also include continuations by Ilbereth, the Red Elf who becomes Father Christmas’ secretary, and the cast of characters grows to include Snowpeople, other Elves, and the Cave Bear, along with Cave Bear and Polar Bear’s nephews and distant relations.  Usually, the stories are pure slapstick comedy, like Polar Bear falling through the roof or down the stairs or testing the tap for the Rory Bory Aylis and setting off two years’ worth of Northern Lights all at once.  And then there are instances of the characters snarking at each other in the margins, such as when Ilbereth has been talking smack about what Polar Bear eats and Polar Bear calls him “you thinuous elf.

“He means fatuous,” Ilbereth remarks.

No I don’t,” Polar Bear returns, “you are not fat, but thin and silly.

tolkien-letterOccasionally, however, Father Christmas has to deal with a more serious threat:  goblins who live in caves under the North Pole and steal presents.  Cave Bear, Polar Bear, and Father Christmas stumble upon a nest in 1932 quite by accident, and though they drive the goblins out that time, other years see the goblins return in force to try to conquer the North Pole.  One attempt, not coincidentally, comes during 1941; Father Christmas tells Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla, “I expect the Goblins thought that with so much war going on this was a fine chance to recapture the North.”  Other real-life concerns intrude during the Depression and the war, with Father Christmas explaining a shortage of presents several times by saying that he needs more room in his sleigh to deliver food and clothes to families that have none.  On a lighter note, however, after Oxford’s hosting of a flood of evacuees during the Battle of Britain in 1940, Father Christmas writes that the North Pole has also had evacuees—penguins!

These letters provide a fun glimpse at the state of the Tolkien household through the years—changes of address, new additions to the family, children going off to school and considering themselves too old to hang up stockings.  There’s even a brief reference to The Hobbit in 1937!  But more than that, they showcase just how much Tolkien loved his children and used his talents to bring them joy, especially around the holidays.  The smiles they bring the rest of us are merely an added bonus.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.