One should always be careful about asking a person with a rich imagination a question, as the answer could go on for some time. On the occasion John Tolkien, 3 years old, fished for information about Father Christmas, his own father spent the next 23 years responding.
From 1920 to 1943, J.R.R. Tolkien, the novelist who would later become a revered figure in the fantasy genre for his work on The Lord of the Rings series, constructed another world rich in detail and elaborate in its mythology. Rather than see print, however, the story was hand-delivered to an exclusive audience of only four people on Christmas Eve: his children.
Postmark: North Pole
Just before heading out to serve in World War I—where he was felled by trench fever, a nasty bacterial infection—Tolkien married Edith Bratt. The first of their offspring, John, arrived in 1917, followed by Michael in 1920, Christopher in 1924, and Priscilla in 1929.
John’s query ignited something in Tolkien. A philologist and expert in English and Norse literature, he might have sensed the rich story potential. His answer came on December 24, when he penned a letter in red ink that was purportedly from Father Christmas himself and included a self-portrait of a man with a flowing white beard and red coat. The correspondence itself was done as though the author had a trembling hand befitting a very, very old man:
I heard you ask today what I was like and where I lived. I have drawn me and 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.”
Brevity, which never appeared to be a characteristic of Tolkien, was on display in that first response, but Tolkien’s efforts grew livelier and more complex over time—and Father Christmas was merely the tip of the iceberg. In Tolkien’s mind, he was the protagonist of a vast narrative encapsulating polar bears, elves, and goblins, the latter of whom live in an underground network of caves below the Pole and cause Father Christmas untold headaches.
At their worst, the goblins try to steal all the presents—a crime which Tolkien cleverly used as an explanation for why his kids might not get every single gift they had asked for. Other times, the obstacles were as simple as what plagued children of the era: whooping cough. The Great Polar Bear is the comic relief, prone to errors of judgment. He once turned on all the Northern Lights by accident; another time, he fell asleep in a bathtub with running water. Elves, called Red Gnomes, were Father Christmas’s allies.
There were rewards for careful analysis. The goblins had a decipherable alphabet; names of bears were written in Finnish. To complete the verisimilitude, Tolkien would sometimes arrange for the letters to be delivered by the postman, postmarked as though they had originated from the North Pole. (Other times, they arrived via “gnome carrier.”) Whether the family was in Leeds, Oxford, or elsewhere, Father Christmas could always manage to find them. And sometimes, his children would write back.
While the letters were certainly a tradition meant to warm hearts, Tolkien could not escape the darkening mood of the world. In 1931, Father Christmas reminded them that economic woes may result in him sending “what I can, instead of what is asked for.” In 1939, he made mention of “this horrible war.”
For Whom the Sleigh Bells Toll
Tolkien’s tales of Father Christmas endured through 1943, at which point his youngest child, Priscilla, was 14 and perhaps just old enough to no longer be enchanted by this serialized tale. Tolkien, of course, had other concerns. The Hobbit had already seen publication in 1937; The Fellowship of the Ring would arrive in 1954. Elements of the letters, including mysterious caves, elves, goblins, and world-building, would permeate those better-known works.
The letters were not widely circulated until 1976, three years after Tolkien’s death. Christopher Tolkien’s wife, Baillie, had them compiled and published for a book titled The Father Christmas Letters. The originals later went on display at the University of Oxford in 2017. At the exhibit, visitors could see first-hand what Tolkien wrote for Father Christmas’s farewell address:
“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.”