Father Christmas is many different personalities to children around the world. To some, he is an aloof disciplinarian, always watching, quill poised over the naughty list. To others he is an unsettling discrepancy—the one stranger whom parents encourage them to sit with, and whom they allow to break into their home while they sleep.
To most children, however, in particular the very young, he is a living, breathing fairy tale, embodying the magic and wonder of our first conscious years. Hard as it becomes to recall, there was a time when it was impossible not to believe in him.
Letters from Father Christmas is a 111-page collection of writings and illustrations, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s daughter-in-law Baillie, showing who Father Christmas was to the four young children of J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien.
First published in 1976 and revised in 2004, it is a vibrant, full-colour showpiece of a book. Spilling over with love and whimsy, its pages give a glimpse into the Tolkien home during the holidays, showcasing one of our most cherished figures of folklore in the household of one of our time’s most cherished imaginations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a record both tender and poignant, for like the stories of Middle-earth, it dramatizes the slow but inevitable fade of something irreplaceably beautiful. Even as Tolkien’s children outgrow the window of belief, and the last letters arrive in the darkest years of the Second World War, the creativity of Father Christmas perseveres and inspires.
The Tolkiens’ eldest son John was barely three years old when the first letter arrived in December of 1920. Affixed with a custom-made North Pole stamp, the envelope opened to reveal a brief note in a tremulous hand. “I heard you ask daddy what I was like and where I lived,” it read, written for a toddler who could not yet write to him. “I have drawn me and my house for you.”
Accompanying the letter was a two-paneled drawing, the topmost showing a bearded man in red marching through a blizzard with a sack full of toys. On the bottom was a domed house surrounded by spires of ice. White stars, now familiar to Tolkien’s readers, shine in the dark sky.
The letters and drawings would continue to arrive for the next twenty-three years— variously addressed to John, the boys (including Michael and Christopher), the boys and girl (Priscilla), and finally to Priscilla alone—documenting not only the births of Tolkien’s children, but also the years they wrote back. Of varying lengths, and often detailing the challenges of fulfilling all their Christmas wishes, they attest to the schedule of a busy man, whose creative energies waxed and waned with the many demands upon him.
The letters were not only from Nicholas Christmas himself, but also from the North Polar Bear (his accident-prone assistant), and later from Ilbereth, his Elvish secretary. In addition to describing the many mishaps and recoveries of Cliff House (to which Father Christmas moved in 1927 after the North Polar Bear accidentally wrecked the roof of Christmas House), the writings show a profound interest in languages and scripts.
The North Polar Bear provides a sample of the “Arktik langwidge”, whose letters are runic, but which seems remarkably similar to the Quenya language of Middle-earth’s Elves (Mára mesta an ni véla tye ento, y rato nea) [“Goodby till I see you next and I hope it will be soon”]).
In 1932, Father Christmas enters some caves to rescue the bear, and describes walls full of goblin paintings:
The goblin pictures must be very old, because the goblin fighters are sitting on drasils: a very queer sort of dwarf ‘dachshund’ horse creature they used to use, but they have died out long ago. I believe the Red Gnomes finished them off, somewhere about Edward the Fourth’s time.
The lore would certainly have impressed Tolkien himself, who would have recognized drasil as an Old Norse–Icelandic word for ‘steed’ (the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, means ‘Ygg’s [Odin’s] steed’). The expedition into the goblin caves also afforded a Goblin alphabet, into which the North Polar Bear encoded a letter.
There was no translation, only Father Christmas’s goading encouragement: “As you are all so clever now (…) what with Latin and French and Greek you will easily read it and see that the Polar Bear sends much love.” The Tolkien children would have to ask for the alphabet’s deciphering key, which would not arrive until four years later.
It is a cold coincidence that the Second World War begins as the youngest of the Tolkien children, Priscilla, outgrows her enchanted correspondence, and the letters draw to a close. From 1939 onwards, Father Christmas makes open reference to the “horrible war”. “Many of my messengers have never come back,” he writes. By 1940, he is finding it difficult to keep good things in stock:
I am hoping that I shall be able to replenish them before long; though there is so much waste and smashing going on that it makes me rather sad, and anxious too. Deliveries too are more difficult than ever this year with damaged houses and houseless people and all the dreadful events going on in your countries.
Still, he adds, things remain merry in the North Pole (notwithstanding the goblin battle in 1940). Perhaps the most memorable letter arrives in 1938, with a poem in rhyming couplets. Father Christmas—who was never as good with poetry as he was with prose—is heckled by the North Polar Bear’s notes in the margins: (So please forgive me, dear Priscilla, / if I pretend you rhyme with pillow! She won’t.).
The last letter came in 1943, when Priscilla was fourteen. By then, it is clear she has not written to Father Christmas since she was twelve. Christopher, just nineteen, had joined the RAF, and was training in South Africa. In fantasy stories, the waning of magic in the world is called thinning, and like the ending of Peter Pan and many other fantasies to which juvenile wonder is essential, Father Christmas’s last letter is hard reading for anyone who has had to grow up:
A very Happy Christmas! I suppose you will be hanging up your stocking just once more: I hope so, for I have still a few little things for you. After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children.
Although it is a grim year, he adds, the North Pole is intact, and he looks forward to replenishing his stores soon. There is a single remark from the North Polar Bear, characteristically misspelled, a little more, and then the farewell (“Very much love from your old friend, Father Christmas”). With a final illustration—of the moon and night sky—the book ends.
For reasons that are many and obvious, Letters from Father Christmas is an inspiring artifact. It is perhaps not the best gift for a child, particularly a very insightful one, but rather for the adult who grew up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, who very much has the Tolkien children, and their father’s love, to thank for them.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com