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

  • 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

Easter Worship

For this year’s Easter post, I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of what we do at my church. We’re a tiny congregation, which affords us the luxury of some habits which would be more difficult in larger congregations. On holidays, particularly Easter and Christmas, our worship service involves Scripture readings by members of the congregation, with our hymns and praise songs interspersed. The Scripture readings are hand-picked to tell the story of God’s redemption of mankind, from beginning to Christ. I pray that you are blessed by what you read here.


Man Made a Little Lower than God

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” …God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27, 28, 31a)

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:1, 3-6a)

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Merry Christmas to all!

Merry Christmas!

Here’s my favorite scene from my favorite Christmas film (and one of my favorite fantasy films). This holiday is when we celebrate how God sacrificed Himself in order to love and save us, who were His enemies. The story of Scrooge is so powerful because it speaks to this, showing a man redeemed from the evil that was in his heart. And this scene especially, for it shows him receive instant, undeserved forgiveness from those who loved him in spite of himself. It’s beautiful.

Goodwill and peace to all of you this happy day! This time of year can be horrendously stressful and unpleasant for all manner of reasons. I’m no stranger to that side of it. But my peace is in Jesus Christ, and because of Him and what He did this day is happy. May you experience and give patience, forgiveness, and compassion in joyous abundance.

Thank God for the Irish!

Greetings and well met, friends. Perhaps you remember my review of The Secret of Kells (2009) some time ago, and how much I liked that movie about the beautiful illustrated Bible that “turns darkness into light.” It’s a beautiful movie in many ways, not least because its art is a simple joy to behold. However, if there was one thing the movie could have used more of, it’s the Book of Kells itself. Such glimpses the movie gives us of its brightly colored illuminations is only enough to whet the appetite.

Fortunately, that appetite may now be sated. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Trinity College Dublin has made available for free viewing online the entirety of the Book of Kells, scanned digitally so that every colored line can be clearly seen. Follow the link to enjoy the beauty of art that glorifies God!

Book of Kells folio 5