• Letters from Father Christmas
  • by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Goodreads link
  • Pages: 110
  • Published: first in 1976, this edition 2004
  • Spoiler-free Synopsis: From 1920 to 1943, the children of J.R.R. Tolkien would write letters to Father Christmas. Every year, Father Christmas answered them, often with accompanying pictures. These are those letters and pictures.
  • Re-readability: I do believe this will be an annual tradition for me, from now on. It is highly rereadable, both for its relative brevity and its abundance of charm and invention.
  • Recommendation: If you have children, this book can quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for your whole family, as it was for Tolkien’s. I think I would have loved it as a boy, as much or moreso than I do as a man. However, I imagine that if I become a father one day, and read this to my children as I plan to, it will set an impossibly high bar for what my children would expect from their father! I’m a writer too, and occasionally a doodler, but I’m no Tolkien! But I enjoy this book so much that I’d read it to them anyway.

Key Thoughts

I knew this book would be charming and inventive, and it absolutely was. What I didn’t expect was how hilarious it could be, and, nearing the end, a bit bittersweet.

We meet a family of lovable characters at the North Pole in these letters. Father Christmas is, as we expect, quite generous and affectionate towards the children he writes to, but he’s often exasperated when things interfere with his busy preparations for Christmas and is quick to complain about his helper, the North Polar Bear. The P.B. (everyone gets abbreviations in these letters) is really a good bear, but a bit foolish and clumsy; he gets to make his own comments in the margins and post-scripts, defending himself against unfair accusations or making other remarks, often funny. Late in the book (16 years into the letters), Father Christmas gets an elf secretary, Ilbereth, who writes for him and carries on a truly amusing banter with P.B. in the margins.

It has gone on being warm up here, as I told you – not what you would call warm, but warm for the North Pole, with very little snow. The North Polar Bear, if you know who I mean, has been lazy and sleepy as a result, and very slow over packing, or any job except eating. He has enjoyed sampling and tasting the food parcels this year (to see if they were fresh and good, he said).

Somebody haz to – and I found stones in some of the kurrants.

But that is not the worst – I should hardly feel it was Christmas if he didn’t do something ridiculous. You will never guess what he did this time!

December 23, 1931 [bold script is the North Polar Bear, regular is Father Christmas.]

There are other characters and many interesting stories that serve to make the North Pole feel like a real, lived-in place, though never mundane or un-magical. The letters tell of mending broken roofs and silly accidents that P.B. has as often as they do battles with evil goblins.

Most of the letters are accompanied by Tolkien’s drawings and paintings, ostensibly in the hand of Father Christmas or one of his helpers. It must be said, Tolkien was an outstanding artist, and his drawings of the North Pole are a delight to behold.

ABOVE: The Polar Bear shows his bravery in defending the North Pole from a goblin horde. BELOW: Father Christmas’ bedroom.

With each letter or two, a year ticks by, and we realize that Tolkien’s children are growing up. Some are no longer receiving letters. Baby Priscilla is now quite a big girl. And that’s where the bittersweetness comes in. It can’t last forever, and Father Christmas knows it; so does Father Tolkien. The final letter is for 1943: the “horrible war” is making rations tight even in the North Pole, and some of Father Christmas’ messengers haven’t come back. But he tells us not to worry. He assures Priscilla that even though she will soon be too old to hang her stocking at Christmas, he will continue to serve other children, and he’ll be happy to write again once she has children of her own.

And that is why this is a perfect Christmas book — at least insofar as it doesn’t address the religious meaning behind the holiday (which I’m a little surprised it doesn’t, considering how Tolkien passionately wove his faith into his Middle-Earth mythology). Christmas culture in the West is a potent mix of peaceful beauty, reverent magic, and affectionate humor, but also has a streak of melancholy in its winter air. We grow older, and so do our kids. The old magic is hard to recapture. Sad memories accumulate around the holidays that are hard to shake. But it remains a time to remember hope, and beauty, and family. “Letters from Father Christmas” gets all of that, and I love it.

Very much love from your old friend, Father Christmas.

Christmas 1943

7 thoughts on “Review: “Letters from Father Christmas” by J.R.R. Tolkien

    1. Likewise, I’ve had it for a year, maybe two, without really reading it. I’d meant to. I’d flipped through it a little and thought it looked delightful. But it didn’t seem as urgent as so many other books. However, I sat down a couple of days ago and decided to go through it, if not in one sitting, then really no more than three. And I’m glad I did. I tried to imagine being one of the children and having to wait a whole year for the next letter to arrive. It’s easy to understand why the Tolkien children were apparently rather zealous in writing their letters to Father Christmas, often sending them in November or October! I’d be eager to get a reply like these, too. And how much time Tolkien must have spent on each one! Just Father Christmas’ handwriting alone is so detailed and decorated.

  1. This is a really lovely book. It’s beautiful to see the care with which Tolkien wrote to his children and even drew pictures and postage stamps! I like, too, how we can see his writing process and how the story evolves over the years as the children grow. I think that, if I were the children, I would have wanted the letters to continue long after I figured out Father Christmas wasn’t really sending the letters. The story, after all, is very good!

    1. Indeed, I sure would! I remember writing a couple of letters to Santa when I was little, and I’m sure my parents left a note or something in reply. But I might have written more regularly had the letters been like this!

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