Christmas With J.R.R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters

My little 2015 piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s funny and endearing Father Christmas Letters has had quite a spin around the internet this week. I cannot think of a better Christmas note for you, dear readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia, than to touch this up a bit and send it back out. I have come to love Tolkien’s peculiar artistic eye, which is captured especially well in the gorgeous and rich Mythopoeic Award-nominated Bodleian exhibition book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlwaine. I have since found another copy of The Father Christmas Letters, which our son will receive as a gift when he has his own little ones to entertain–whether at firesides or in classrooms or in library book clubs. Deepest wishes on this holiday season, and may all your polar bears bring joy and light!

What a find! At a yard sale a good friend scored a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters and she was good enough to give it to me.

Published by his daughter-in-law in 1976 on the 3rd anniversary of Tolkien’s death, this is a stunning collection of art and humorous writing. If there is one more gift you would like to get for someone you love–for an older child with a great sense of humour, or any Tolkien fan–there are multiple editions available of this out-of-print special edition in used bookstores online.

The story of this book is itself a great story.

From his first child’s toddlerhood to the end of his last child’s Christmas innocence, long before he became the author of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote letters from Father Christmas each year. These letters were carefully delivered to the Tolkien family mantel during advent. They include beautiful art, hand-drawn stamps, the hilarious antics of a polar bear, and personal notes in Father Christmas’ shaky handwriting. The children received these letters each year with delight and wonder, finding themselves lost in the myth as long as they could.

I am thrilled to own this book and wish I had: a) thought of it myself, being a lover of Christmastide creativity and advent antics; and b) the skill to do it. So I will let the work speak for itself, posting a few examples of the artwork and some transcripts.

On this page, Father Christmas writes to 3 year old John in 1920:

tolkiens-father-christmas-letters-pageDear John,

I heard you ask today what I was like & where I lived. I have drawn ME & My House for you. Take care of the picture. I am just off now for Oxford with my bundle of toys–some for you. Hope I shall arrive in time: the snow is very thick at the North Pole tonight:

Yr loving Fr. Chr.

The polar bear is a fan favourite. Here he has tumbled down the stairs,creating all manor of Christmas chaos in Claus Manor. The note from Father Christmas began: “What do you think the poor dear bear has been and done this time? Nothing as bad as letting off all the lights.”

Tolkien-FatherChristmas-polar-bear

The reference to “letting off all the lights” was 1926, where the Polar Bear set off “the biggest bang in the world, and the most monstrous firework there has ever been.” HIlarity ensued in the North Pole. The beautiful cover image is of the Aurora Borealis fireworks that only Santa Claus could keep in his basement.

Tolkien Northern Lights

While most of the book is typescript, there are a couple of examples of copies of the original letters. Here is one in the introduction, a letter of 1933. It tells of peril, where Christmas was almost lost to Goblin attack. The Tolkien Christmas has more elements of violence than the average fireside tale!

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters forematter

There is another letter in a later edition (2001) that is a neat read, and the transcript is in this 1976 edition:

Cliff House
Top of the World
Near the North Pole

Xmas 1925

My dear boys,

I am dreadfully busy this year — it makes my hand more shaky than ever when I think of it — and not very rich. In fact, awful things have been happening, and some of the presents have got spoilt and I haven’t got the North Polar Bear to help me and I have had to move house just before Christmas, so you can imagine what a state everything is in, and you will see why I have a new address, and why I can only write one letter between you both. It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the N.P.Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down — and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the N.P.Bear fell through the hole it made into the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the N.P.Bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas. I send you a picture of the accident, and of my new house on the cliffs above the N.P. (with beautiful cellars in the cliffs). If John can’t read my old shaky writing (1925 years old) he must get his father to. When is Michael going to learn to read, and write his own letters to me? Lots of love to you both and Christopher, whose name is rather like mine.

That’s all. Goodbye.

Father Christmas

Thanks to Letters of Note for the transcription. Here is a picture of the original letter:

tolkien-original christmas letter

Also included in this letter are these pictures:

tolkien-christmasmas-letters 1925

I hope you will find a copy of this book for yourselves. They really are a delightful read and a wonderful Christmas project idea. I’ll leave you all with just a few more pictures:

Tolkien Father Christmas Letters 1933 tolkien-christmas illustrations Tolkien-FatherChristmas-polar-bear 1931

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to Christmas With J.R.R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters

  1. Ocean Bream says:

    This is really a lovely idea. What a wonderful mind he had.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. danaames says:

    Merry Christmas!
    D.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Christmas With J.R.R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters — A Pilgrim in Narnia – Strider's Table

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Good to hear your “little 2015 piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s funny and endearing Father Christmas Letters has had quite a spin around the internet this week”! And that you keep spreading the cheery word of this!

    2020 saw a “Centenary edition” – but sadly, I have not yet see a copy, and do not know just how it compares to the ” revised and enlarged” 2012 edition about which Christian Scull wrote this:

    https://wayneandchristina.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/the-father-christmas-letters-4/

    Checking just now, I see reviews of it on YouTube, but have not stopped to see how detailed any of them are…

    Derek Jacobi read one version for a very enjoyable 1998 audiobook – but I do not know which edition he read.

    There is a world of fun Tolkien ‘Articological’ scholarship waiting to be written… L. Jagi Lamplighter was so kind as to publish a post of mine in this direction (and Nancy Martsch to publish a later, fuller version in Beyond Bree):

    https://www.superversivesf.com/inklings/2018/11/07/kubla-khan-and-father-nicholas-christmas/

    Meanwhile, I hope you and yours are having a joyful Christmastide!

    Like

    • Hi David, thanks for the note! And thank you for the link to your intriguing possibility paper. My own sheer wonder at the discovery of these letters has not given birth yet to anything like an original thought.
      Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull do a great service to the world of Tolkien readers.

      Like

  5. These are always a delight to revisit! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Like

  6. I have a copy of the Tolkien ‘Father Christmas Letters’ in my collection – my Mum bought it, decades ago when it was first out and I inherited the copy. A delightful book and an insight into Tolkien on multiple levels, including his artwork.

    Like

  7. Pingback: A Brace of Tolkien Posts for his 130th Birthday (#TolkienBirthdayToast) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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