My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

December 26, 2023: Christmas Stories: The Father Christmas Letters

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

On three distinct ways to contextualize J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Christmas texts.

1)      Father Christmas: I’m sure Tolkien wasn’t the first to use that particular phrase for St. Nicholas/Santa Claus, but as with everything Tolkien wrote it was still a purposeful and powerful choice. These letters were texts that Tolkien created for his own children, sending them a letter (with his own accompanying illustrations) each holiday season for more than two decades (and were only published decades later, after his death and edited by his daughter-in-law and former secretary Baillie). As such, they were not only from the children’s father, but also represented a powerful reminder that Santa himself is in many ways (or at least had evolved into by the 20th century) a parental alter ego, an expression of what parents and parental figures want to offer and be for their children at their best.

2)      Fantasy: Tolkien created the Father Christmas letters every year from 1920 to 1943, and over that same period he wrote another, slightly more famous text: The Hobbit, which he began in the early 1930s and published in 1937; at that time he also immediately began work on The Lord of the Rings, although it wouldn’t be published until the 1950s. Since he envisioned that fantasy novel as a children’s book first and foremost, it’s difficult not to see a connection between these two creative works; moreover, the Father Christmas letters included a number of elements that Tolkien brought into his fantastic world of Middle-earth, from elves, goblins, and giant bears to characters who lived in holes in the ground (the network of underground rooms at the North Pole was my sons’ favorite Father Christmas letters illustration). Seeing these foundations for one of the most foundational fantasies is an added bonus for any reader of the Father Christmas letters.

3)      Reality: Tolkien strongly resisted any analyses of The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II, and I always try to honor that authorial perspective even if I don’t entirely agree. But of course the Father Christmas letters are set on Earth in the 20th century, fantastic as many elements of them are, and so in this text Tolkien did not resist making such world-historical connections: mentioning the war overtly in his 1939 letter, and then adding battles against threatening goblins into the subsequent letters. When I teach my Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy course (as I will get to again this Spring), we talk a lot about the relationship of the fantastic to the realistic in each and every text and genre we engage, and it’s fascinating to see how Tolkien navigated that balance in these two fantastic texts and worlds he was creating side-by-side in the late 1930s. One of many reasons to share the Father Christmas letters with our own families every holiday season!

Next Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

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