The last Tolkien Tuesday of the year is here, and December is also ending. But before we say goodbye to this month, I would like to sum up the first read-along I hosted this month: we read J. R. R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas. I was really looking forwards to organizing a book discussion on this book as it is one of my favourite books by Tolkien! I love the humorous touch, the illustrations, and being able to “know” his family through stories. And, I am also a big fan of letters and cards!
As you already know, I had suggested using Letters from Father Christmas as an advent calendar, as you can see here. But, I had not considered that there are many different editions of this book! I am really sorry that it did not function well for everyone! My edition is the Harper Collins 2015 hardback edition. I got it here.
To make this post on the book club I’ve been hosting more organized, I divided the discussion into three main sections: Before Reading; Discussion on the Letters; Suggested Activities based on the Letters; and, Final Thoughts Discussion. You can find more information on each of those sections below.
I would like to give a huge thanks to all of you who joined the discussions on the letters, shared your thoughts, and insights. I truly appreciate them from the bottom of my heart. Thank you! And, I would also want to thank everyone who joined the challenges! I truly enjoyed seeing and reading your posts!
I. Before Reading 🎄
General Introduction to the Letters
It might be your first time discovering Tolkien’s imaginary North Pole and Santa’s home. In case you have not read Letters from Father Christmas before, fear not. Below you will find a brief introduction of the book to have a general idea of what to expect.
The graphic I made says:
“This book is not directly connected with Tolkien’s legendarium of Middle Earth unless we consider some small details that we are going to discuss as the reading advances. This book is a selection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children, John being the eldest son, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. Tolkien writes as if he were Father Christmas. All the illustrations attached to the letters were drawn by Tolkien, and he never imagined them published in a book. The book is edited by Christopher second wife, Baillie”.
Now you have a general idea of the letters and their contents! I hope that you are looking forward to reading them!
– Context of the Letters
Any book and reading require a brief introduction of its context of production.
The first letter that appears in the book is directed to Tolkien’s eldest son, John, it’s dated from 1920. According to Carpenter’s official biography, in 1920, the date of the first letter selected for this book, Tolkien was living in Leeds, which didn’t seem to be a good time in the beginning. Read an extract from Tolkien a Biography by Humphrey Carpenter that might help to understand the context of the first letter:
The extract I quoted on the graphic reads:
“Smoky begrimed hung about with a thick industrial fog, crowded with factories, and terraced houses, Leeds offered a little prospect of a good life… At first, life was difficult for him. Just after the first term in Leeds began in October 1920, Edith gave birth to a second son, Michael Hilary Reuel; Tolkien living in a bedsitter in Leeds during the week had to make a journey to Oxford at weekends to see the family. Not until the beginning of 1921 were Edith and the baby ready to move north… “ – Carpenter
⋆ After Reading the first Letter: Now, Tolkien himself would kill me for considering his lifestyle and biography for understanding his book, as he was totally against bios for understanding the author’s works. But do you think that this glimpse of his life might help us understand the origins of his work? Do you think Tolkien’s “dark times” might have influenced his need of cheering up his and his family at Christmas time and this might have inspired him to create the first artistical letters to his children?
The last letters from the book were written in the middle of World War II. We should remember that Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, where, he had lost almost all his closest friends from childhood, he had learnt about pain and destruction.
II. Discussion on the Letters 🎅
I have developed some questions to reflect on the reading and the contents of the letters. This is not an official reading guide, these are questions I’ve created by my own reading experience and professional knowledge in literature.
As every Christmas book, it is compulsory to consider questions on Christmas traditions, celebrations as the first letters refer to as well. Here are the ones I thought to be interesting for discussing:
- How do you call Father Christmas in your country? How did you imagine him as a child? Does it match Tolkien’s pictures draw by Tolkien?
- How did your relatives wrote the names on the Christmas’s gift tags when you were a kid? Did they make a shaky writing as the one used by Tolkien in his letters? If you have little children in the family, did you create an special writing to make them believe that Santa is the one giving the presents?
Now, let’s focus on the questions that are straightly related to the letters and their content. It is important to remember that this is for fun, for discussing this amazing book, and should not become a torturing quiz with facts, names and things that might be learnt by heart or memory.
❅ Letters from 1925
- First Letter: In contrast with the otherletters, there is a change of style and content, Father Christmas starts telling about his adventures and Polar Bear is introduced. Why do you think Tolkien chose a Polar Bear as Santa’s helper.
- Second Letter: Since Polar Bear is introduced, the writing format of the letters change as Polar Bear also wants to send some messages. What do you think about this switch? Do you feel there is an humorous atmosphere in the letters?
❅ Letter from 1926
- There are curious possible allusions to The Lord of the Rings, can you spot them?
❅ Letter from 1927
- If your country is not mentioned in the letter from 1927, what do you think Father Christmas would see from his sled with reindeer?
❅ Letters from 1929
- First Letter: Polar Bear introduces us to his language and signs the letter with a sentence that might remind us of Elvish farewell. Do you agree with this parallel?
- Second Letter: Snow elves are introduced, how do you imagine them?
- Second Letter: From a Postcolonial reading, this letter might be considered racist as it doesn’t seem to consider the local inhabitants from the South Hemisphere but only European colonialist. What do you think about this? Or do you think Tolkien believed South Hemisphere to have another Father Christmas or similar sort?
❅ Letter 1930
- This letter talks about boxing, and preparing Christmas presents. How do you give gift in your country? Is there any specific way to do so? Do you put them inside stockings, under the pine, or there is another way?
- If you are in the North Hemisphere, do you celebrate Yule? Do you have any traditions, food, activities you love?
- It mentions Christopher Tolkien being afraid of Father Christmas when being a little kid. Were you afraid as well? If so, do you have any experience you would like to share?
❅ Letter from December 23rd 1931
- Tolkien mentions his children on awareness of the situation all over the world: “remember that this Christmas all over the world there are terrible number of poor and starving people”. Do you have any Christmas traditions that involves acts of kindness towards others?
- Father Christmas mentions the Green Brother. Do you know who is him?
- What do you think of the different picture style he attached that was drawn by Polar Bear and his nephews? Which of his own adventures are you liking so far?
- Question for Finnish friends here: Paksu and Valkotukka are introduced in this letter. What do you think about their names? Do you think Tolkien’s love for Finnish language is well used?
- Here, once more, like in his Middle Earth, Tolkien shows his dislike for machines: “you need not to believe any pictures you see of me in aeroplanes or motors. I cannot drive one, and don’t want to; and they are slow anyway”. What do you think about this?
- In this letter, John is over 14, and it seems that he doesn’t write to Father Christmas anymore. At which age did you stop believing in Father Christmas?
❅ Letter from December 23rd 1932
- Tolkien introduces the goblins and the Gnomes. How did you imagine them? Did you know that Tolkien used the word “gnomes” on some first drafts of his Middle Earth stories?
- Tolkien adapts “naturalistic” and “scientific” details from real world to his fictional North Pole stories. What do you think about this decision? Do you like it?
- Father Christmas’ deers and numbers of them are mentioned. Do you agree with Tolkien’s number of deers Father Christmas must have?
- Father Christmas mentions Tolkien and his drawings. Do you think this device of Tolkien to mention himself worked to convince his children that it was indeed Father Christmas writing the letters and not him?
❅ Letter December 21st 1933
- Makes reference to the horn blown by Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. Father Christmas’ golden trumpet is very similar, don’t you think so?
- Nowadays, it is becoming less common, but where you live, it is evident that some presents are meant for boys and others are designed for girls?
❅ Letter from the 24th of December 1934 to Christopher
- Father Christmas describes the Christmas tree. Do you make a one? Which color pallette and decorations or ornaments do you usually use?
❅ Letter from the 24th of December 1934 to Priscilla:
- Makes a reference to the first drafts of The Lord of the Rings! Can you spot it?
❅ Letter December 23rd 1936
- Ilbereth is introduced, as an elf and secretary of Father Christmas. What do you think about the name?
❅ Letter from 24th December 1937
- Alludes to The Hobbit second edition, as Tolkien’s children suggested it as an excellent present to give. Do you agree? Tells us the story of how you read The Hobbit for the first time.
- Ilbereth writes something on Elvish do you think the aesthetics resemble some of Tolkien’s Elvish languages? Which one?
❅ Letters from 1938 to Priscilla
- Christmas food is described, what do you usually bake or cook for Christmas?
- Beatrix Potter book is mentioned. Which children’s stories did you love when you were a kid?
❅ Letter from December 24th 1939
- What do you think about Polar Bear’s writing style and the drawings attributed to him?
❅ Letter from Christmas Eve 1940
- Mentions the World War II, its influence in Tolkien’s imaginary North Pole, what do you think about Tolkien’s decision of including these references and giving them an explanation in this world? Like the inclusion of penguins.
❅ Letter from December 22nd 1941
- Father Christmas mentions he had to blow the great Horn (Windbeam) to ask for help. To which Tolkien character or situation this scene might be compared with?
- What do you think Polar Bear decided to gift Priscilla’s Bear Bingo?
❅ Letter from 1942
- Again, Father Christmas mentions the effects of WWII, houseless people, damaged houses, separated families. Do you think the urge to constantly mention these observations were influenced by Tolkien’s experience as a Veteran in WWI?
❅ Letter from 1943
- The selection of letters closes with Father Christmas saying goodbye to Priscilla. What do you think about this way of ending the correspondence?
III. Suggested Activities Based on the Letters ☃️
The first time I read Letters from Father Christmas, I couldn’t avoid thinking about some wonderful activities and challenges that could be done while reading this amazing book! I am sharing some of them below.
↠ Share a photo, drawing, Christmas decorations, etc…featuring Father Christmas. Does it match with how you imagined him? Does it resemble Tolkien’s drawing? What makes him recognisable as Santa?
↠ Try writing a sentence in Father Christmas’ stylish front. How was the experience like?
↠ Share your favourite picture from Letters, the one you would love to send someone on Christmas day.
↠ Try writing a short message in Arktik stylish front to Karhu. What would you say?
↠ In Letter from December 23rd 1932, rock art is introduced. Do you love any style of rock art? Do you have a favourite archaeological site for rock art? Have you seen any rock art? If so where? Learn more about rock art here.
↠ Find any decoration where Father Christmas characters can be seen: polar bears, snowmen, etc… Take a picture and share it with us.
↠ Have you ever created an alphabet? If not try creating one. If so, write in it and share a picture.
↠ Try writing in the Goblin Alphabet. Polar Bear attached it in the letter from December 23rd 1936.
↠ Exchange Christmas Cards with a friend or family.
↠ Write a letter to Father Christmas, what would you say?
IV. Final Thoughts ✨
As with any reading, there should be a final reflection on the book and the reading experience. Whether you read it as an Advent Calendar, in the Christmas season or at any other time, the experience would differ. How was your experience? Did you enjoy the book? What called your attention? And, no less important, which one was your favourite letter? Do you have a favourite illustration? A favourite quotation? Share your final thoughts!
ᚠ I hosted this read-along as part of the event I hosted on Instagram, called Christmas in Fangorn. Again, a huge thanks to everyone who participated in the Read-along and the challenges! Thank you for being part of this event and making it possible! Here you can see all the responses to the challenge I hosted on Instagram.