A huge aspect of the life of JRR Tolkien was the relationship between his work and his children. His works like The Hobbit were initially written as children’s stories that he read to his four children. This relationship lived on in the work of his son Christopher Tolkien who dedicated his entire life to sorting out the paperwork of his father’s estate and seeing to it that his books like The Silmarillion and his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight saw the light of day.
Among these heavy works of literature was one of his lighter books. Letters from Father Christmas didn’t start out as a book at all. It was a Christmas tradition in the Tolkien house. From 1920 to 1943, Tolkien wrote correspondence between his children and “Father Christmas” complete with long stories, handmade drawings and postage that talked about life at the North Pole. The letters were compiled by his children three years after his passing and released as a stand-alone children’s book.
It’s a strange book in that sense. It’s a deeply intimate series of letters that were clearly crafted by a very loving father to his beloved children. It’s hard to imagine the letters being depersonalized from the context of being letters specifically between this family. That said, they are quite magical!
The stories are extremely light hearted and undramatic fair. In each letter, we learn about the course of events that has transpired this year at the North Pole. The misadventures of Father Christmas and his minions seems to have no end. He’s constantly scurrying to prepare each year’s stock of Christmas toys for his flight across Europe. Sometimes Santa is so busy that he is forced to hand off the correspondence to his secretary. Sometimes his assistant Polar Bear injects commentary into the letters. Some of the letters are brief and others are quite excessive.
There’s a surprising amount of thought, lore and consistent character writing that went into the writing. Tolkien maintained his reputation as a master of lore-craft and details even in his personal correspondence. While there is no overriding story to Letters from Father Christmas, the yearly correspondence does offer episodic and brief adventures that are very child appropriate.
In one story, Polar Bear crashes through the roof of the shop and forces them to repair it. In another story, Polar Bear accidently blows up all the fireworks at the North Pole and creates a massive explosion. In a later letter, Goblins start attacking the North Pole and Santa and the Elves repel them (no casualties thankfully). Most of the stories are quite slapstick oriented. The only letters that mention anything close to being inappropriate just reference injuries like one that Polar Bear incurs and not in great detail.
I didn’t have the pleasure to read this to an actual child and I’d be curious to see how a kid would react to reading through this as a bedtime story. While the Audible version was lacking the drawings, I’m sure Tolkien’s lovely hand-drawn images of the North Pole would be fun for kids. A parent might have to explain to their child why they’re reading Santa’s letters to another family but that’s hardly difficult.
I can’t recommend Letters from Father Christmas enough as a children’s book and a minor Tolkien classic!