In December 1920, an innocent three year-old named John asked his father about a person he’d heard rumors about for the past few weeks.
Who was this Father Christmas fellow? Where did he come from? Where did he live?
Simple, ordinary questions from a curious child, not unlike queries pressed upon parents all over the world. The difference was that this particular child was John Tolkien, whose father was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien.
And with a father like that, not just any old answer would do.
Instead, on December 22, 1920, little John received a letter from Father Christmas himself, written in fancy red ink and postmarked ‘The North Pole.”
I heard you ask daddy 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.
Your loving Father Christmas.”
It was accompanied by a hand-drawn watercolor picture of a white domed structure, surrounded by pines and gleaming in the snowy moonlight. Nearby, a bearded man in a red-hooded cloak trudged through the snowflakes with a bulging sack thrust across his back.
The letter was delivered by the local postman with a smile, stamped and processed just like real mail.
Little John was ecstatic. Father Christmas had taken time, not only to write him a letter, but to draw him a picture. He must have been the most special little boy in the world.
And he was. To Tolkien, at least. Because it was Tolkien who had written the letter, of course, and persuaded the post man to deliver them with the rest of the mail. He had drawn the pictures and created special “North Pole stamps” as well, the cost of postage being “two kisses.”
Thus, a tradition was born, with a letter arriving each December, either by post or placed on the mantel, containing greetings and news from the North Pole for John and, later, the other Tolkien children. Some years the letters were short; Father Christmas was very busy after all. Other years, they contained long, elaborate stories about his adventures with his companion, the North Pole Bear, whose antics often provided headaches for Father Christmas but laughs for the Tolkien children.
As the children grew older and the situation in Europe grew darker, so did the stories–Father Christmas waged battle against foul-smelling goblins but, to the children’s delight, emerged successfully and still managed to deliver his toys on time. Some speculate Tolkien was expressing his distaste for the “German Menace” while also offering escapism and reassurance to his children during the bleakest years of World War II.
The letters continued until 1943, when the original recipient John was 26 and Tolkien’s youngest child Priscilla was 14. Across Europe, the war continued to rage and, in the Tolkien household, the days of fairy tales were waning. In his final letter, Father Christmas wrote:
“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.
My messengers tell me that people call it ‘grim’ this year. I think they mean miserable: and so it is, I fear, in very many places where I was especially fond of going; but I am very glad to hear that you are still not really miserable. Don’t be! I am still very much alive, and shall come back again soon, as merry as ever…
Give my love to the others: John and Michael and Christopher…
Very much love from your old friend,
The letters and drawings are now available in book form from HarperCollins Publishers, aptly titled “Letters from Father Christmas.” They offer a fascinating glimpse into the family life of one of the world’s most famous storytellers, showcasing the deep affection he had for his children, as well as the depth of his imagination and creativity, even during the turmoil of writing what would become a literary classic (“The Hobbit” was published in 1937) and the uncertainty of war in the world outside his doorstep.
***History Friday will be on hiatus until January 9. Merry Christmas to all of my readers, and a very blessed New Year!***