Letters From Father Christmas: How Tolkien’s Family Holiday Tradition Inspired Our Own

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Hobbiton letter

Three aptly-named penguins visit Hobbiton in New Zealand on one of the world travels they share each year.

merry

Merri

pippen

Pippen

For more than 20 years, the children of J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from Father Christmas sent from the “North Pole.”  These letters, written in spindly script reminiscent of an ancient hand, told tales of the adventures and antics that occurred over the past year, many of which dealt with the exploits of the North Polar Bear and his sidekick cubs.  These letters were accompanied by illustrations by Father Christmas himself, although they bore a striking similarity to Tolkien’s own work.

The letters were posthumously released in book form, titled “Letters From Father Christmas” and I was fortunate to receive one of these books as a gift from my husband several years ago. I wasn’t just taken with the book; I was inspired by it. When my eldest daughter, Molly, turned three in 2005—the same age Tolkien’s oldest son was when he began receiving the letters in 1920—she began receiving her own letters from the North Pole and Father Christmas’ American counterpart, Santa Claus.

krampus penguin

Rosie learns about Krampus

The first letter introduced Molly to a pair of penguins whose penchant for wandering landed them in the North Pole, far from their Antarctic homeland. Santa, being Santa, quickly adopted them, and they have been having adventures ever since. Santa named this bird pair “Merry and Pippen,” after another pair of accidental adventurers.

surf penguin

Christmas Down Under

Over the past eight years, Merry and Pippen have joined Santa on his global trek and learned a lot about holiday traditions around the world. They’ve attended La Posada in Mexico, been frightened by Krampus in Germany, donned Santa Lucia’s crown of lights (with nearly disastrous results) in Scandinavia, delivered presents on January 15 in some parts of Russia, and enjoyed a sunny December “summer” on a beach in Sydney, Australia. Last year, they couldn’t resist visiting New Zealand, one of the first places to see Christmas Day each year, and have a holiday celebration in “The Shire.”

These letters have evolved a bit over the years. Santa soon realized writing in calligraphy was for the birds (no penguin pun intended), and his scrawl soon took on the curvy look of Father Christmas’. In 2009, the penguin pair received a special gift, a baby girl named Rosie (named for Samwise Gamgee’s “rustic” love). Who could have guessed Merry would turn out to be a female, and a fertile one at that? This was an interesting turn of events for the penguins, as that same year, Molly became a big sister. Since then, Santa’s letters have been addressed to both Molly and her little sister, Erin.

santa lucia penguin

Donning’ Santa Lucia’s crown

Of course, there are simple illustrations of the penguins’ yearly happenings, although not nearly as elaborate as the ones Tolkien’s kids were treated to. No matter, as the girls look forward to the arrival of these letters almost as much as the arrival of Christmas itself.

Who knows what quest lies ahead for Merry and Pippen this year?  Will they enjoy sweets with La Befana in Italy? Learn about Hanukkah in the Holy Land? Take a TARDIS to the birth of the Christ child (well, The Doctor did say he was there)? Maybe they will don a paper crown in the United Kingdom after popping some Christmas crackers. I guess the girls will have to wait and see, but the anticipation is just part of the fun.

posada penguins

Enjoying Posada in Latin America

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