Friday, October 22, 2010

J.R.R. Tolkien Was Father Christmas

I'm in Iowa City (possibly more on that later), but the biggest find of the day started at the Iowa City Public Library. It's a lovely, brand-new-looking building, which has been in use for six years.

Miniature house made out of stacked books, with books for shingles on the roof
My favorite part of any library is the children's room. The first thing I saw there was this house built of books. Kids probably love it, although it made me a bit sad, even knowing these copies would have been discarded because of wear. (I saw at least two Newbery-winners in the walls.)

Cover of The Father Christmas LettersI wasn't looking for anything in particular as I walked among the shelves. Then I stumbled upon a book I'd never heard of. Published in 1976, the thin volume contains the text and illustrations of all the letters J.R.R. Tolkien (aka Father Christmas) sent to his children between 1920 and the early 1940s.

As the book says, "Sometimes the envelopes, dusted with snow and bearing Polar postage stamps, were found in the house on the morning after his visit; sometimes the postman brought them; and letters that the children wrote themselves vanished from the fireplace when no one was about."

Ornately lettered address to the Tolkien Family
In the letters, Father Christmas's dramatic foil is the North Polar Bear, shown here after falling down the stairs with an armload of packages (1928)...

Watercolor illustration of a polar bear at the bottom of a long staircase, Father Christmas at the top looking down at him
...or here causing a flood onto the gifts, after falling asleep in the bathtub with both taps open (1936):

Sectioned illustration of polar bear in an overflowing bathtub, Father Christmas one floor below outraged as water pours out of the ceiling onto the gifts
Father Christmas's envelopes included hand-painted stamps and often had fanciful endorsements:

Letter endorsement: By gnome-carrier, Immediate haste!
I especially liked the 1934 illustration:

Illustation of a Christmas tree with Father Christmas, polar bear and others dancing around it
The final letter, from the early 1940s, says:

I am so glad you did not forget to write to me again this year. The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller. I expect it is because of this horrible war, and that when it is over things will improve again, and I shall be as busy as ever.
Then, after a charming story about the North Polar Bear's misadventures, Father Christmas continues:
Well, that will give you some idea of events and you will understand why I have not had time to draw a picture this year -- rather a pity, because there have been such exciting things to draw -- and why I have not been able to collect the usual things for you, or even the very few that you asked for...

I suppose after this year you will not be hanging your stocking any more. I shall have to say 'goodbye', more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the names of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children...
Tolkien's youngest daughter was in her early teens by this time, and the tradition ended. He had already written and published The Hobbit, but had not yet begun the Lord of the Rings.

After taking these photos, I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf, and we left the library. I thought I'd never see it again.

A few hours later, though, I was wandering through a used bookstore and what did I find on the shelf but another copy of the The Father Christmas Letters. For $7.00!

Thank you, Iowa City!


Barbara said...

Jonathan brought this book into our marriage years ago, or I would never have known about it.

He and I have a yearly tradition of reading the letters aloud to each other during the evenings leading up to Christmas. When our boy was old enough, we read to him, too, and eventually he began taking his turn as reader. We always time it so that we read the second to last letter with him on Christmas eve, and then we read the last letter after he goes to bed. The day will come when we will read that last letter with its sad paragraph to him and about him, and I can just barely think about that without tearing up.

But I must tell you that this book does NOT contain all the letters. It is heavily edited. There is a 1999 book called "Letters from Father Christmas" that has everything, and is well worth looking for (but it will not replace "The Father Christmas Letters" in our reading tradition).

And we will not speak of the children's book version that came out after, and modeled on, the "The Jolly Postman" (it had severely mangled versions of the letters in little sleeves in the book).

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

My husband and daughter used to read these letters from this same book, and I discovered it when I joined the family. Didn't know about the bigger book that Barbara describes; I might have to seek that out.

Daughter Number Three said...

What a lovely family tradition. I wish I had known about the book earlier. Now I will have to keep an eye out for the 1999 edition!