“The Father Christmas Letters” is a collection of letters and accompanying pictures written by JRR Tolkien for his children. Of course it is traditional in many countries for children to write letters to Father Christmas, but Tolkien’s children were lucky enough to receive letters back. (What a great dad Tolkien must have been, with so much care and effort put into this annual gift for his children.)
They arrived by various means – sometimes the postman would bring them, sometimes they would just appear in the house. They came in envelopes with polar stamps (also designed by Tolkien) and, over time, created a little world of magical creatures at the North Pole, including Father Christmas, the North Polar Bear, his North Polar Cub nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka, elves, gnomes, reindeer, and goblins. We learn that the North Pole is an actual physical pole that gets broken a couple of times, that the Northern Lights have to be turned on, and there is a tap that does this (North Polar Bear turns it on too hard once, using up two years worth of northern lights).
There are stories about domestic mishaps (such as the North Polar Bear falling down the stairs) and stories involving more serious adventures (attacks by goblins). Father Christmas writes to the children about things going on in the world, for example in 1931 he mentions that many people are poor and starving, and that the Tolkien children might not get many of the things they asked for as a result of gifts being given to the poor. It was, of course, the Great Depression, and I imagine things were tight. I love how Tolkien incorporates this into the letter, reminding his children in the gentlest way that there are many worse off and they must be grateful for what they have.
One story involves a ‘cave bear’ and a journey into some caves where they find very ancient cave art. There are mammoths and rhinoceros, and the cave bear says that men used to live in that area. There are also goblin pictures and writing. This segues into a number of adventures involving goblins, who steal some presents and set fire to others. Father Christmas says that goblins are growing in number all over the world, a fairy-tale parallel to the rise of dictatorships in the thirties. Tolkien doesn’t shy away from these matters. He wants his children to be aware of the wicked things in the world that they must watch out for. Elves and Gnomes help Father Christmas and North Polar Bear to battle the goblins and save Christmas. (Honestly this would make a much better movie than some of the Christmas movies they put out.) He also says that goblins will not stay around when he appears, and the children have no need to fear.
As previously mentioned, the envelopes these letters arrive in are a treat in themselves. Tolkien designed Polar postage stamps, and the envelopes had the sending address “Top o’ the World”, North Pole. They might have other messages written on them, such as ‘By Gnome-carrier, Immediate Haste’, ‘to be delivered direct – by Christmas eve’, ‘by Elf messenger’, and so on. Pictures on the stamps shows the ‘North Pole’ on a snowy night with a big star above, the Northern Lights, or Father Christmas himself. Essentially Tolkien creates a complete world, with everything looking exactly like a real letter from a real place.
I think the pictures are some of the best parts of this book. Tolkien did his own drawings, and they depict the house, Father Christmas himself and the North Polar bear, the North Pole, the reindeer, the elves, goblins, the caves and so on. The pictures are of varying complexity, and I won’t say Tolkien was a great artist, but he was a fair illustrator and the pictures included here are great fun. They help with the world building and I can imagine the children pouring over the pictures which illustrate the small tales Father Christmas has told them, laughing at the antics of North Polar Bear and gasping in delight at the beauty of the Northern Lights.
I received my copy of this book from my mother at the age of ten. Many decades later, I still read it nearly every Christmas and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. There is apparently an audio version, but I would recommend a print version as you would otherwise miss out on the pictures, which are an essential part. If you are parents of small children who still believe in Father Christmas, get this for them. It’s a joy and a delight, sure to bring a smile to your face.