Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches. The letters were from Father Christmas. They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house. Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.
All parents put a lot of effort into ensuring the child believes in Santa/Father Christmas. Be it nawed carrots, sleigh bells in the garden or footprints in the snow. Many children at some point receives a letter from Santa. I have found memories of receiving letters sent on behalf of Santa by Nollaig his elf in the Irish postal system. The excitement of actually recieving post at the age of 6 was excitement enough, that it was from the man himself blew my little mind. Tolkien however took it one step further, and employing his skills as a writer sent his children personalised letters over a period of about 20 years.
The first letter was sent in 1920 when Tolkien’s eldest son was just 3 years and must have just been beginning to grasp the concept of Father Christmas. It is a relatively simple letter as one would expect when sending it to such a small child. Over the years however they became more complex, describing the North Pole, introducing new characters, drawings and even languages (how Tolkien). The languages I suspect are a way for Tolkien to discuse his handwriting as the children got older. The letters tell stories of the adventures of Father Christmas and his friends in the North Pole. Parties are had and battles are waged. It is clear at some points the children also engaged in regular correspondence with Father Christmas, writing about things in their lives outside of their Christmas lists. As an adult it is all very sweet, to a child it would be magical.
Beneath the letters however you also get an insight into the Tolkien family. New children are born, the family moves house, older children cease to believe (something which is dealt with very well with in the letters). Changes in the families fortunes are also evident. There are years when only short notes are sent clearing indicting years when Tolkien either had no idea or no opportunity to write a letter. There are years when apologies are given for the lack of presents and stories created about accidents destroying toys to explain anyway difficencies, in years when things are obviously tight for the family. Towards the end the influence of the war is evident as rationing sets in and toys are harder to find.
The final letter is touching. It is a fathers farewell to the years of childhood innoncence and believe as Tolkien’s youngest child outgrows Santa. One suspects Tolkien had enjoyed the fun of the letters as much if not more than his children, and mourns their end.
This is a wonderfully sweet book which allows us to remember briefly that childhood wonder and excitement. With its beautiful original illustrations it is also a lovely Christmas book for children….Just make sure you have your answers ready for all the questions it will inevitably raise from curious little heads.