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Letters from Father Christmas} ?> When Tolkien’s children were growing up, he wrote them letters as Father Christmas. Between the years of 1920 and 1943, they would receive letters in which Father Christmas told them stories about his life in the North Pole, his chief assistant the North Polar Bear, and the wars between the goblins and the Red Gnomes of Norway—all written in shaky handwriting (because it’s so cold in the North Pole).
Father Christmas would include drawings and sometimes the North Polar Bear would add his own comments. Over the years, the list of characters grew to include Pasku and Valkotukka, the North Polar Bear’s mischievous nephews, and an elf named Ilbereth, who Father Christmas employed as his secretary and who would sometimes write the letters if Father Christmas was too tired.
These letters started when Tolkien’s first child, John, was just three years old, and continued until his fourth and last child, Priscilla, was thirteen. In one letter, Father Christmas asks Michael, the second eldest, to give his love to John, even though he knows that John is too old to believe in him. In another, Father Christmas asks after Christopher, who is away at school. In the final letter, written in 1943, Father Christmas tells Priscilla that he’ll have to say good bye, but that he won’t forget her.
I can only imagine the joy and excitement Tolkien’s children would have felt upon receiving that first letter, and the anticipation of getting one every year after that. I can also imagine Tolkien’s own joy at writing them, knowing how much his children loved them.
I think these letters, first and foremost, were gifts.
It seems to me that, when it comes to Christmas, some Christians are very particular about what the holiday should and should not include: Christmas is about Jesus and nothing else, especially Santa Claus. “The war on Christmas,” “the reason for the season,” and “keep Christ in Christmas” are all phrases that invariably crop up this time of year, as if we’re afraid that, if we let Christmas be about anything other than Jesus, we’ll lose something sacred.
But, I think we’re missing out by refusing to embrace our cultural myths. We could use a little more Father Christmas in our lives.
Now, I don’t mean the Santa Claus who’s been commercialized to sell products and co-opted by parents trying to keep kids in line; I’m talking about the Father Christmas whose arrival in Narnia announces to the Pevensie children that the long winter is coming to an end.
Cultural myths are a source of art, poetry, literature, philosophy, and are a way to locate oneself among a people. For me, learning Norse myths and folklore means getting to know my Norwegian heritage. To understand a culture is to know the stories from which it comes. But, North Americans don’t really have a collective cultural myth because we’re made up of so many different cultures. In Canada, we’ve attempted to create a cultural identity that revolves around the stereotypes of being polite, living in igloos, and loving hockey way too much, and yet I find that I identify much more as a Viking than I ever did as a Canadian (as much as I do love living here) because I have stories that I can root myself in.
Tolkien didn’t think that England had its own cultural myths either—beyond Arthurian legends, which he thought were too closely bound up with Christianity—and so he sought to create some in his stories of Middle-earth. He also argued for the importance of myth in his poem, “Mythopoeia.”
The story of Father Christmas is one that unites the globe. Every country has its own name for him, like Papá Noel in Spain, Père Noël in France, and Babbo Natale in Italy. And though the folklore around him is an amalgamation of different references and traditions—like Saint Nicholas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and several English poems dating back to the 1400s—everywhere he is a symbol of hope, goodwill, and joy.
For Christians, Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. As a devout Catholic, the significance of the season would not have been lost on Tolkien. And yet, he chose to indulge in the myth of Father Christmas in order to create some magic for his children. We can give thanks for the coming of Christ and we can participate in our cultural stories; we don’t have to choose one over the other.