Retro Friday Review: Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien


December 7, 2012 by Heidi

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien book coverTitle: Letters from Father Christmas [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Baillie Tolkien
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Epistolary, Children’s, Holiday
Published: December 14th, 2010 by HarperCollins (Originally published 1976)
Format: Kindle Edition; 113 pages.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

In 1920, when J.R.R. Tolkien’s eldest son was only three years old, his children began to receive a series of letters from the North Pole.  Each year they would arrive with special postage stamps and drawings, bearing the shaky handwriting and stories of Father Christmas.  For the next 22 years, the Tolkien children would correspond with Father Christmas, sending their wish lists and best wishes and receiving in return love and stories like no others.

Letters from Father Christmas is a very short and quick read comprised of photographs of the envelopes, stamps, letters, and drawings that J.R.R. Tolkien created in the name of Father Christmas for his children.  Published posthumously, the collection was edited by Baillie Tolkien, his daughter-in-law.

Letter from Father Christmas in envelope
If you are looking for unexpected charm, warmth, and unabashed fun this holiday season, Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas provides just that.  There is at least one letter for each year, some short, some long, and some years brought several letters from October or November through the season.  The letters portray the adventures of Father Christmas along with his bumbling companion, the North Polar Bear.  Our dear friend Polar Bear is constantly involved in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from setting off two years works of fire works in one go so that there will be no northern lights for two years, to falling asleep in the tub with the tap running so that all of that year’s presents get flooded.  As time marches forward, the North Pole becomes increasingly habitated by Snowbabies, Bear Cubs, Elves, Gnomes, and insidious Goblins.  There are epic battles, parties, and no small account of jovial scenes that will charm adults and children alike (in fact, I would suggest reading this one as a family).

North Polar Bear 1931

Images via.
Doesn’t this look reminiscent of The Hobbit cover?

As an adult fan of Tolkien’s work, Letters from Father Christmas gives one some very interesting insight into the writer’s home life.  Clearly he was a man who loved his children very much.  Many years the mishaps at the North Pole are used to help explain away the reality that the children do not receive everything they have asked for.  One particular year, Father Christmas mentions not having as much room in his sleigh for presents because he is carrying food and blankets for those many children who are hungry and cold on Christmas Eve; a very subtle but powerful reminder to his children that they are rich in home and family regardless of how much they receive   Father Christmas even mentions one year that he was going to bring them “Hobbits” since he was bringing it to many children, but figured that they would have lots already.  The latest letters take place during WWII, which Father Christmas speaks of with great distaste and blames for his dwindling stores.  Here is one short letter from that time, which also alludes to the many adventures we’ve had to this point:

Cliff House,
near North Pole
Christmas Eve 1940

My Dearest Priscilla

Just a short letter to wish you a very happy Christmas.  Please give my love to Christopher.  We are having rather a difficult time this year.  This horrible war is reducing all our stocks, and in so many countries children are living far from their homes.  Polar Bear has had a very busy time trying to get our address-lists corrected.  I am glad you are still at home!

I wonder what you will think of my picture.  “Penguins don’t  live at the North Pole,” you will say.  I know they don’t, but we have got some all the same.  What you would call “evacuees”, I believe (not a very nice word); except that they did not come here to escape the war, but to find it!  They heard such stories of the happenings up in the North (including a quite untrue story that Polar Bear and all the Polar Cubs had been blown up, and that I had been captured by Goblins) that they swam all the way here to see if they could help me.  Nearly 50 arrived.  The picture is of Polar Bear dancing with their chiefs.  They amuse us enormously: they don’t really help much, but are always playing funny dancing games, and trying to imitate the walk of Polar Bear and the Cubs.

Very much love from your old friend,

Father Christmas

While I honestly cannot recommend the Kindle edition of Letters from Father Christmas as you lose too much of the charm and beauty of the colorful artwork, I do recommend picking up a more recent publication as earlier editions omitted some of the letters and drawings that have been included in more recent editions.



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  1. This sounds absolutely incredible! I love that Tolkien is such a masterful storyteller and that even something as simple as these letters carries an unexpected amount of depth. Wonderful review, Heidi – I’ll definitely have to check this one out!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! This is pretty incredibly, Keertana. I loved seeing how incredibly creative Tolkien could be in even the smallest things that he did. These got pretty epic! Very worth checking out, I’m sure your library probably has a copy. :)

  2. I picked this up from the library last night :] It is an older one, I think..It is a huge blue hardcover copy. So excited to start it!

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! I’m so glad that you picked this one up, Alyssa. You can read it in a couple of hours (if that), and it is so so worth it. Glad it’s huge, that means the pictures will be wonderful!

  3. VeganYANerds says:

    What a lovely story and such a nice memory for his children, I bet they adore seeing this in print as I am sure Tolkien fans would. Thanks for sharing this, Heidi, it would make a beautiful Xmas gift :)

  4. Asheley says:

    This looks pretty awesome. I don’t know what else to say other than that. It just does.

  5. I don’t think I’d ever heard of this before, but now I’m intent on giving a copy to someone this Christmas—not sure who, it just sounds like the kind of book that should be bought in hardcover and wrapped in gorgeous paper and ugh, I love Christmas so much. (Something that has confounded many, given my intensely non-religious worldview—I think it’s the decorations. And the music. And the stories. And the presents. And the season. I just love it all.)

    Anyway, great review. Maybe my library will have a copy because I’d love to read this, too.

  6. This made me tear up a little bit! Lamme. But it is one of those things you can imagine being part of a great parent-child relationship. I am really glad I read this review because this has been popping up a lot on my Kindle recommendations recently and now I know I want a paper copy instead! I need those illustrations in my life. x

  7. Jasmine Rose says:

    This would make a great present for my husband one year! He likes to read, but he’s so incredibly picky about what he reads. Thanks for reviewing this and bringing it to my attention :]

  8. Great review!! This is such an amazing book. Tolkien is an unmatched storyteller.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog, and I just signed up to follow you through email! Keep up the good work!

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.