Each December from 1920-1943, envelopes bearing hand-drawn stamps from the North Pole arrived for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. In the guise of Father Christmas or one of his companions, Tolkien sent (with the complicity of his neighborhood postman) stories, paintings and sketches of life at the North Pole. The family preserved these artifacts and, after the professor’s death, published them as the Father Christmas Letters in 1976. Revised and republished every few years since then, Letters from Father Christmas (as it is now called) is a classic collection belonging on every fantasy-lover’s holiday reading list. To whet your appetite, here is a memorable entry featuring my favorite character – the hapless North Polar Bear:
Top of the World
Near the North Pole
Monday December 20th 1926
My dear boys,
I am more shaky than usual this year. The North Polar Bear’s fault! It was the biggest bang in the world, and the most monstrous firework there ever has been. It turned the North Pole BLACK and shook all the stars out of place, broke the moon into four—and the Man in it fell into my back garden. He ate quite a lot of my Christmas chocolates before he said he felt better and climbed back to mend it and get the stars tidy.
Then I found out that the reindeer had broken loose… But isn’t the North Polar Bear silly? And he isn’t a bit sorry! Of course he did it… [he] turned on all the Northern Lights for two years in one go. You have never heard or seen anything like it. I have tried to draw a picture of it; but I am too shaky to do it properly and you can’t paint fizzing light can you?
As Tolkien worked on other children’s stories, the letters became infused with elements from those as well. Scull and Hammond, in their introduction to Roverandom (a story possibly written over the winter holidays of 1927), note that in both Roverandom and the 1927 Christmas letter, the Man-in-the-Moon drives marauding white moon dragons back into their holes with his spells and magic. In addition to similar story lines, drawings of the Moon in Roverandom (below, left) and the North Pole in the 1927 Christmas letter (below, right) share similar architecture and barren, rocky landscapes.
In The History of the Hobbit, John Rateliff notes “the letters for 1932 and 1933 represent a dramatic shift in tone. In them, the world of Father Christmas and his friends suddenly becomes very like that of The Hobbit with the introduction of goblins… [and] an ancient and magical bear… we can even see both Gollum and Smaug make a cameo appearance” (xvi) with the North Polar Bear (detail, below).
These new elements in the letters, Rateliff argues, appear at the same time Tolkien was drafting the final chapters of The Hobbit (xvi), including the goblin invasion at the Battle of Five Armies and the intervention of Beorn, the bear-man.
Eventually, Tolkien’s own children grew up, discovering the true identity of the letters’ author along the way. By 1943 the youngest, Priscilla, hung up her stocking for the last time. But since 1976, the letters have been republished half a dozen times and translated into several languages. Countless other children have enjoyed these stories and illustrations as if they’d been written especially for them by the jolly old gentleman himself. If you haven’t yet discovered these delightful missives, this is the perfect holiday season to do so. A new 2012 edition is available in the U.K. and the 2004 U.S. print edition is also available for download to eReaders like Kindle and Nook.
Rateliff, John. The History of the Hobbit. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.
Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. Introduction. Roverandom. By J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Miffin Company, 1998.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters from Father Christmas. Ed. Baillie Tolkien. Revised edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.