Christmas With The Tolkiens: Creating Traditions

In some very practical sense, it is too early to be thinking about Christmas. I will freely admit that a Scrooge-like sentiment arose within me when I saw artificial Christmas trees and inflatable yuletide lawn decorations for sale in Home Depot in late October.

For those of us who are teachers or students, Christmas seems a long way off: midterms—and the accompanying terrors—are not far behind, and the Thanksgiving holiday itself feels just out of reach.

If thinking of Christmas at this point in the season is stressful to you, please feel free to skip this post. It is intended mainly for those who might be looking to create new traditions this Christmas, and doing so will take some advance planning.

If you are like me, inspiration tends to strike a bit late, and ideas that strike oneself late in the season will be as useful as the presents and decorations that go on sale on Boxing Day: beneficial in the future, but too late for this year.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters

One of the best Christmas traditions in my family was the inclusion of the figure of Father Christmas. The presence of this figure was two-fold, the first part being the nightly readings of The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, the second being the unaccountable actions taken by “F.C.” relating to a certain “S.C.,” of which most parents have some knowledge and on which I will be silent. You never know who may be reading.

I cannot recommend Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters highly enough, and it would be hard to say how much it has meant to my family over the years. Our copy was put away with the Christmas decorations, and it was unpacked with great joy each year (you don’t have to know my family personally to imagine how priceless a book that was only available three weeks out of each year might be to a young brood of bookworms).

On most nights during the month of December, my father would read several letters from this book, letters that Tolkien himself had first written to his children. You see, every year the Tolkien children would receive a letter from “Top o’ the World, North Pole,” penned by Father Christmas. These letters are handwritten and illustrated in Tolkien’s unique style, and the paintings and prose alike are simple yet full of beauty and wonder.

The Father Christmas Letters have a unique place in Tolkien’s literary world. For one thing, they were unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime, but unlike many of his works of which that is true, the Letters, so far as we know, were never intended for publication.

Tolkien was a notorious tinkerer, continuously visiting and revising his written work. This kept much of Tolkien’s legendarium from the printing press until after his death, when his son Christopher began editing and publishing such irreplaceable volumes as The Silmarillion.

The Letters, however, are frozen in time; they were not intended for publication, but they do represent the final edition intended for a very particular audience, for once the letter was posted there would be no revising it, and whatever the Tolkien children received would forever be that year’s letter from Father Christmas.

The letters are varied in length and subject matter, ranging from the brief and practical—Father Christmas has got all your letters! What a lot, especially from Christopher and Michael! Thank you… I am just beginning to get awfully busy. Let me know more about what you specially want—to the extended accounts of the North Polar Bear’s antics (for those not yet in the know, Father Christmas’ chief assistant is a bumbling Falstaff-ian polar bear, whose ursine muddle-headedness is matched only by his good intentions).

The letters introduce the reader to the broader lore of the North Pole, filled with elves and gnomes, goblin wars, adventures in ancient caves full of strange carvings, mishaps involving the Northern Lights, etc., all the while remaining firmly rooted in Christmas and a special care for the Tolkien children:

Well my dears there is lots more I should like to say – about my green brother and my father, old Grandfather Yule, and why we were both called Nicholas after the Saint (whose day is December sixth) who used to give secret presents, sometimes throwing purses of money through the window. But I must hurry away – I am late already and I am afraid you may not get this in time.
Kisses to you all,
Father Nicholas Christmas
P.S. (Chris has no need to be frightened of me)

Naturally, I commend The Father Christmas Letters to your family reading this Christmas season, but more than that I commend Tolkien’s example as one who both participates in an ancient tradition and creates new elements within the tradition through story.

Traditions and the Power of Creation

The Christmas season affords us unique opportunities to engage in tradition, whether that be with our families, churches, schools, or society in general. Too often we think of tradition as something stale and old or just something we do out of mindless habit, but the roots of the word reveal value and intentionality.

Our word tradition comes “directly from the Latin traditionem (nominative traditio)” which is a “delivery, surrender, or handing down” (if Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology* is to be trusted, at any rate). When you hand over something of importance, you give the recipient a new kind of power, a way of understanding and engaging in the world around her, shaping her vision of earth and heaven, but also give a bond that strengthens her connection to that which is most dear.

Traditions are a fellowship, a participation in the past and present, and the best traditions look to the future as well. But before something of great value can be handed over, it must first be created.

This is perhaps where my disparate thoughts on Tolkien, Christmas, and traditions are in the most danger of coherence. By writing these letters to his children at Christmas time, Tolkien was at once participating in and creating traditions. This dynamic reflects Tolkien’s view of the creative process (most thoroughly articulated in his essay On Fairy Stories), the idea that all true human creativity is an act of imitation or sub-creation of the Primary Act by the Primary Creator, God. Sub-creation that is good and beautiful therefore provides glimpses (however small) of the greater Truth of our Creator and Redeemer.

The season in which we celebrate the Incarnation is rich with such glimpses handed down to us, but also rich with opportunities to create glimpses of Truth in the lives of those around us.

*While I admit this volume is not nearly as charming as The Father Christmas Letters, it would nonetheless make an excellent Christmas gift for the budding philologist, if you happen to have such a person on your hands.

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