It's time once again for my yearly re-read of my favourite Christmas book: Letters from Father Christmas, by J. R. R. Tolkien. It isn't one of Tolkien's best known books, and is divorced entirely from his work on Middle Earth, but his style and warmth show through, in part thanks to the material. The book is comprised of a series of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas (or as his elf secretary) that span 20 some-odd years. Each letter is hand-written and accompanied by an illustration of the letter's events, and it is easy to see the similarities in artistic style with Tolkien's illustrations for the Hobbit.
Over the course of the letters, Tolkien's children, and the modern readers, become familiar with Tolkien's version of the North Pole. There are, of course, elves - but Tolkien adheres more to the traditional depiction of Christmas helpers than to his own more elegant and austere creations. One of the central characters is the North Polar Bear - most of the letters deal with some mischief that he has created. Father Christmas is portrayed as a warm, often exasperated caretaker of his fellow North Pole residents, and occasionally delegates letter writing to his secretary when he is injured or otherwise dealing with crises at the North Pole.
The book has always been an enjoyable Christmas read in its own right - I think I first read it when I was 8 or 9, before I really knew who Tolkien was. My version of the book has removable letters which - somewhat miraculously - young me never managed to lose. I think more recent editions have the letters bound into the book - more sensible, but less fun. My father subsequently introduced me to Tolkien "properly" via The Hobbit, and then by reading The Lord of the Rings to me, so his work has always had a special place in my heart. In recent years, I have come to appreciate Letters From Father Christmas in a different light.
Tolkien began writing these letters in the 1920s, before the publication of The Hobbit. Over the course of the letters, one can begin to see the development of some of the ideas and themes that appear in that book. The North Pole has a problem with goblins which, while not as nefarious as the Middle Earth version, pave the way for creatures to come. Tolkien's Father Christmas, exhibits some of the same qualities and traits as Gandalf, and in my opinion acts as a partial prototype for the later character. As I've already mentioned, Tolkien's unique artistic style, perhaps best known from the dust jacket and illustrations of The Hobbit, is quite present, and the illustrations are a harbinger of things to come. The book is interesting from a historical perspective as well - one of the letters, towards the end of the run, makes reference to World War II, which began the same year as the letter was written.
Letters From Father Christmas is one of those rare books that is intriguing from every perspective. It is, on its own, a lovely Christmas book, and worth reading just for that alone. Within the context of Tolkien's other work, however, it becomes a fascinating look into Tolkien's early creative mind, and is well worth picking up for any fans of Middle Earth, or indeed anyone interested in the development of Tolkien's writing. And of course, the book is also a glimpse into the relationship between a father and his children - a relationship which would, in time, lead to the Hobbit. And the rest, as they say, is history.