DECEMBER 2018 Bundle

Tolkien and Christmas Wonder

by Dan Cruver
“Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no ‘commercialism’ can in fact defile – unless you let it.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael in a letter dated 19 December 1962
My most memorable Christmas growing up is not the Yuletide Day I received an avalanche of gifts, nor was it the day I received the gifts I most wanted. No, it just so happens to be the Christmas I received no gifts at all. That’s right, my favorite Christmas is the one where there were no gifts under the tree. Actually, there wasn’t even a tree, nor where there any decorations to be found both inside or outside our home.
 
I was 19-years old and home from college for Christmas break. Since my father had lost his job two months prior, most everything in our home was packed up and ready for our move to another state, except for the four mattresses that lay on the floor (one for my parents and three for us boys). Money was so tight during that long-ago-holiday season that we couldn’t afford to purchase any gifts. Nor did we have a Christmas tree since it was already packed away. That wonderfully memorable December 25th was a gift-less, tree-less Christmas. All the five of us had was each other. So, leaning against the bare walls of our empty home, there we sat on the floor in a silent night and room that Christmas Eve.

Christmas Wonder to the Rescue

In the 354 letters of Tolkien that were included in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the wordChristmas” occurs just 28 times. Of those 28 times, 7 of them mention Christmas because some unwelcomed illness decided to invade Tolkien’s household in an attempt to ‘defile’ their enjoyment of Yuletide (on the word ‘defile,’ see the quotation at the top of this article). Below are a few examples from Tolkien’s letters when “the Grinch of illness” sought to steal their Christmas wonder. Tolkien writes:
 
Letter 6:
 
“We have just passed through a somewhat disastrous Christmas, as the children chose that time to sicken for measles – by the beginning of January I was the only one in the house left up, the patients including the wife & nursemaid. The vacation work lay in ruins; but they (not the work) are all better now and not much the worse. I escaped” (emphasis mine).
Letter 9:
 
“I am sorry for the long delay. I was unwell for some time, and then faced by a family laid low one by one by influenzabrought back from school for the entire ruin of ChristmasI succumbed myself on New Year’s Eve. It has been difficult to do anything, and what I have done is I fear poor enough” (emphasis mine).
Letter 19:
 
I have been ill and am still rather tottery, and have had others of the common human troubles, so that time has slipped out of my hands: I have accomplished next to nothing of any kind since I saw you. Father Christmas’ 1937 letter is unwritten yet” (emphasis mine).
In another 6 mentions of Christmas in Tolkien’s letters, some other non-sickness related crises likewise tried to squelch Yuletide joy. Not surprisingly, since Tolkien was an author, some of those crises were the unrelenting pressure of December writing deadlines. It makes one wonder if those deadlines somehow tempered his family’s enjoyment of the Christmas season. I’m inclined to doubt that they did. 

From Grinch to Father Christmas

From 1920 to 1943, Tolkien began to dream up and write wonder-filled illustrated letters from Father Christmas to his children. As far as we know—and there is no evidence to the contrary—Tolkien wrote these annual letters to his children without any intention that he would ever publish them. As I’ve already indicated, Tolkien wrote the final Father Christmas letter in 1943, and Letters from Father Christmas wasn’t published until 1976, three years after Tolkien’s death. From what we can glean, it was Tolkien’s children who wanted the world to read their father’s imaginative and wonder-filled Christmas letters.
 
The first “letter from Father Christmas” was written to his then 3-year old son, John (born 1917), and he continued to write these letters each year. The letters’ audience grew as they welcomed new children into their family (Michael, born 1920; Christopher, 1924; Priscilla, 1929). And he wrote these annual Father Christmas letters until 1943 when Priscilla turned 14-years old.
 
I find it a remarkable labor of love that Tolkien wrote these beautifully illustrated letters for his children every Christmas for twenty-three consecutive years. Whether weather or illness invaded their home, Tolkien set aside considerable time to write and beautifully illustrate these imaginative letters. Each of these letters expressed his most tender love for his children. 
 
Catherine McIlwaine, the archivist at Bodleian Libraries (which relatively recently put the original letters and artwork on display), said the following about Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, “The Christmas letters are probably my favourite things in the whole collection…They really show you another side of Tolkien, as a loving family man. There’s something so touching about the image of him, no matter how many demands there were on his time in the university or in his writing, finding the time to sit down in his study and produce these wonderful letters, so detailed and beautifully illustrated. At the time, he was much better known as one of the most distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholars, which can sound a bit dry, but there was nothing dry about these letters at all.”
 
Whether it was illness or deadlines, Christmas in Tolkien’s home was a time for wonder and joy.

Christmas Wonder in The Lord of the Rings

Even a cursory look over Tolkien’s life and works reveals that Christmas held a very special place in his heart. “Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”—so said Elrond on December 25th (in 3018 of the Third Age) as the Fellowship set out on the quest to destroy the One Ring. 
 
Given how important Christmas was to Tolkien, it’s no surprise that the quest to save the free people’s of Middle-earth began the very day on which Christmas is historically celebrated. According to the Christian tradition, on the very first Christmas Love touched down in the midst of our darkened, broken world when the Son of God became man (Luke 2:7) in order to deliver his people. And in Tolkien’s Legendarium, love for the free peoples of Middle-earth set off from Rivendell to rescue them from the power of the Dark Lord.
 
Christmas was an event of singular importance to Tolkien. In late 1955 or early 1956, Michael Straight, the editor of New Republic at the time, asked Tolkien if the One God (Eru Ilúvatar) in The Silmarillion had become ‘embodied’ (i.e., incarnated) at any point within The Lord of the Rings story. Tolkien replied to Michael Straight in a letter writing, “There is no ’embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology” (letter 181). Tolkien then went on to say that “Gandalf is a ‘created’ person; though possibly a spirit that existed before in the physical world.” Readers also sometimes wondered if Gandalf were a “type” of Christ since he suffered death and came back with enhanced powers. To this Tolkien replied, 
 
“But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write” (emphasis Tolkien’s). 
 
Christmas and the Incarnation were of such singular importance to Tolkien that even attempting to write an analogous character into his epic story was something he was far from willing to do. So, the very reason Tolkien refused to “write the Incarnation into The Lord of the Rings” reveals, in my opinion, the uniquely special place Christmas held in his heart.
 
Although Tolkien dared not write anything even remotely resembling the Incarnation into his epic story, he injected beautiful Christmas wonder into The Lord of Rings by having the newly formed Fellowship depart Rivendell on—you guessed it—December 25th in order to begin its quest to rescue Middle-earth. 
 
“It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying overhead, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 292).
 
Such is how Tolkien described the bleak day on which the Fellowship embarked upon its quest to deliver Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron. It’s not until Appendix B that Tolkien explicitly states that “the Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk” on December 25 to begin its quest. In Tolkien’s mind, it seems, if joy was to one day fill Middle-earth as the waters cover the sea, this perilous journey toward wonder-filled joy had to begin on the 25th of December.

The Eucatastrophe that is Christmas

In his “Essay on Fairy Stories,” Tolkien eloquently writes, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” Twice in those three brief sentences, Tolkien mentions Christmas; first, with “the Birth of Christ,” and second, with “the story of the Incarnation.” In both cases, Tolkien places his coined word eucatastrophe in each sentence that references Christmas, and by so doing he stresses Christmas’s singular importance within the glorious and yet tragic history of humanity.
 
All of us know what we mean by the word catastrophe. But we are often unfamiliar of the meaning of eucatastrophe. If we break the word down, the meaning becomes clear:
 
“strophe” = turn
“cata” = down, against, back
“eu” = good
eucatastrophe is a sudden, unexpected turn for good when confronted with a catastrophe. Catastrophes produce fear and horror. Eucatastrophes, on the other hand, produce unexpected joy and celebration. 
 
So, when Tolkien writes that “the Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” he means that man’s history has been overrun with sickness, death, famine, natural disasters, lawbreakers, and war. And every single person who has lived throughout human history has died. 
 
But suddenly, unexpectedly, a babe was born in a manger—one who would rescue his people from a history devastated by sin and death. That, Tolkien wants us to know, is a eucatastrophe. The birth of Jesus was a sudden, unexpected turn of joy. In Luke 2, when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ, they assured the fearful shepherds with the following words, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (v. 10; emphasis mine). The shepherds themselves were to understand the birth of Jesus as a eucatastrophic event.
 
But the story does not end there. This one who was born in a manger that first Christmas morning would one day die the cruelest of deaths. He who had come to rescue his people from a world of death, died. But then the Christian tradition informs us that Christ’s death was not the tragic end of the story. On the third day after Christ’s crucifixion, he was raised from the dead. According to Tolkien, the resurrection of Jesus was another unexpected turn for joy. That’s why Tolkien wrote, “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins [birth of Christ] and ends [resurrection] in joy.”
 
In Tolkien’s worldview, joy punctuates the story of humanity, and it does so by the one whom Tolkien calls the Christ.

Another Important 25th

December 25th is not the only 25th that J.R.R. Tolkien considered important. Yes, the quest to destroy the Ring began on December 25th, but the quest was accomplished on the 25th of March. “Why,” you ask, “is March 25th important?” Great question! In Appendix B in The Return of the King, Tolkien tells us what happened on March 25th, just three months after the Fellowship’s departure from Rivendell: “The Host camps on the Slag-hills. Frodo and Samwise reach the Sammath Naur. Gollum seizes the Ring and falls in the Cracks of Doom Downfall of Barad-dur and passing of Sauron” (375). March 25th is the day that Sauron was conquered! Tom Shippey, a Tolkien expert, informs us in his book The Road to Middle Earth that in “Anglo-Saxon belief…March 25 is the date of the Crucifixion.” 
 
As a devout Christian and an ultra-careful philologist, Tolkien was very careful to choose the dates he did, especially with the two most important dates in his epic story. The quest to save Middle-earth began on December 25th—which is the date on which we celebrate Christmas—and the rescue of Middle-earth from the dark power of Sauron was fulfilled on March 25th—which on the Church Calendar is historically the day of the crucifixion. And as Tolkien indicated in his essay, “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy” (click here to read more about Tolkien’s use of March 25).
 

Surprised by Christmas

Should it surprise us, then, that J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed Christmas so very much and that he worked painstakingly on the Father Christmas letters he wrote and illustrated for his children so that their Christmas-joy may be full? I think not.
 
In my curiosity, I wondered if the Father Christmas letters Tolkien wrote during those Decembers when “the Grinch of illness” was an unwelcome guest were any less jolly or joy-filled. Here is what I learned. There are only three letters that mention Christmas in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that were written during the timeframe of Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas: letters 6, 9, and 19. According to the dates those letters were written, the Father Christmas letters we are looking for are his 1922, 1936, and 1937 letters. Unfortunately, his 1922 letter was not included. Why was his 1922 Christmas letter not included? We are not told. But here’s my fun guess…In the introduction to Letters from Father Christmas, we read, “In this book it has been possible to give only a few examples of Father Christmas’ shaking handwriting, and of the decorations of the letters and the envelopes” (emphasis mine). My “educated” (and very silly) guess is that due to his illness his handwriting was so shaky that it was illegible, and thus not included. But what about Tolkien’s 1936 and 1937 letters?

Excerpt Father Christmas Letter 1936

“I am sorry I cannot send you a long letter to thank you for yours, but I am sending you a picture which will explain a good deal. I do hope you will like what I am bringing and will forgive any mistakes, and I hope nothing will still be wet! I am still shaky and upset, I am getting one of my Elves to write a bit more about things…”

Excerpt Father Christmas Letter 1937

“I am afraid I have not had any time to draw you a picture this year. You see I strained my hand moving heavy boxes in the cellars in November and could not start my letters until later than usual and my hand still gets tired quickly. But Ilbereth, who is now my secretary, has done you what he calls a picture diary. I hope it will do…”
Whether there is any correlation between the Decembers when Tolkien was sick and the “brevity” of the Father Christmas letters he wrote those years, I guess we will never know. But it brings a small Christmas smile-like smirk on my face to wonder if there is…
 
What we do know, though, is whether illness invaded Tolkien’s home in December or not, he was very careful to bring Christmas-wonder into his children’s experience—just as he was careful to bring Christmas-wonder into The Lord of the Rings by telling us that the Fellowship set off from Rivendell on December 25th to rescue the free peoples of Middle-earth.

Back to My Most Memorable Christmas

I began this article by telling you that my Christmas as a 19-year old was a gift-less, tree-less Christmas. It would not be unreasonable for you to think that our family of five sat there discouraged and sad. But as I look back on that particular childhood Christmas, I recall feeling a brief but passing hint of sadness, but I mostly remember feeling deep gratitude and thankfulness as my parents began reminiscing about our family’s best experiences of the years we had been together. As I look back on that gift-less Christmas, I remember laughing, singing carols, drinking hot chocolate from leftover cocoa packets, and dreaming together about the adventures we were certain to experience after we moved to our new state and home. Although Bilbo believed that hobbits were plain folk and had no use for adventures, I began to learn on that particular tree-less Christmas that adventures into the unknown can be “very good for you—and profitable too” (The Hobbit, 7).