I puzzle throughout December: “Is all of our holiday stress a recent-days phenomenon?” And in my most reflective moments, I ask, “Is there any way to find deeper joy in December’s rush and push?”
J.R.R. Tolkien loved Christmas. He was so fond of Yuletide that beginning in 1920, he crafted an annual Father Christmas letter for his beloved children. These marvelously imaginative letters were drafted with rich characters, unique Elvish and rune-like handwriting, and colorful sketches to coincide with the seasonal tales. Originally a labor of love for the Tolkien children’s enjoyment, a collection of the letters was eventually published posthumously in 1976. 1
Joy at Work
Tolkien’s own take on the calendar carried a deep rootedness that included his full immersion in the Christian tradition. In March of 1939, he delivered his famous essay On Fairy-stories at the University of St. Andrews. With this essay, Tolkien coined his original term eucatastrophe. His unique word conveys the concept of a person experiencing a perspective shift, a “good turn” even amidst life’s catastrophic, down-turned circumstances. The Professor observed of his genre:
The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth . . . But in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world . . . it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.
From Tolkien’s perspective, such good effect was really an echo of the primary Good News as presented in the Christian Gospel accounts. Nearing the final strokes of his essay, Tolkien said:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnaton. This story begins and ends in joy. 2
For J.R.R. Tolkien, the work of fairy-stories was grounded in something far greater than whimsical fancy and flighty happiness. Fairy-stories carried Gospel foundations capable of delivering deeper, truer, lasting joy.
A Tolkien Letter at Christmas
Now consider this curious Tolkien account at Christmastime. Just a little over one year prior to his delivery of the renowned essay, he wrote a letter. It was December of 1937, the same year The Hobbit was first released. Sent to his publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, the letter’s opening excerpt is tremendously insightful:
16 December 1937 20 Nonhmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Mr Unwin,
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. . . . . My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn.3
We might assume Tolkien was having a most magical Christmas in light of his book’s successful debut that year. Surprisingly enough, that was not the case. Instead, this letter reveals one worn out, stressed out, time-crunched, regretful author. Did you notice? He was even feeling very tardy about his annual tradition of writing the Father Christmas letter for his children. But Tolkien recognized the personal applicability of discovering joy in the dazzle and frazzle of Christmastime. He found joy in pondering the ongoing progress for his decades-long work toward his masterpiece, The Silmarillion.
I find some sense of comfort in the reality that a highly successful individual such as Tolkien was battered by Christmastime stress. Perhaps yuletide fatigue is not such a new-to-our-generation phenomenon after all.
Tolkien was well versed in discovering joy—yes, with great intentionality—especially in times of stress and turmoil. He knew that the very best stories, including the grand Christian stories like Christmas and Easter were punctuated with genuine joy, even amidst serious stress.
I am moved in the midst of my own hustle and bustle of this year’s season with these two rich realities.
First, we discover life-giving rejuvenation by slowing down and pondering.
We can celebrate simple goodness in everyday simplicities. It’s the stuff of crackling logs on the fire, trees and tinsel, good storybooks, joyous singing, creative projects for our children and grandchildren, and delectable feasts with friends, both old and new.
Slow down to ponder. What’s your own “Silmarillion?” What have you been creating this year or perhaps for a stretch of years? Amidst all of the challenges and setbacks, what has proven productive or portrays serious prospect? What product line is making some progress? Is there a group of leaders or students in whom you are seeing real growth? Amidst all the Holiday rush, take intentional time to pause, to celebrate, and to see the good.
Second, we are encouraged by the reality: we are not alone in the rush and push.
Tolkien was acquainted with feeling overwhelmed at Christmastime. And we dare not forget. The same was true for that holy family over two millennia ago as they wearily entered the gates of Bethlehem. The Christ Child was arriving amid great chaos. Winsomely, Mary found time to ponder and treasure all these things in her heart. Over and over again in Luke’s account, the characters of Christmas discovered joy.4
How about you? Have you taken time during this season to ponder anew the old Gospel story? Have you considered how the babe born in Bethlehem made it possible for us to discover God’s gracious goodness, even in our own chaos and catastrophe? His wondrous incarnation, loving death, and glorious resurrection brought us forgiveness, personal awakening to new life, and glorious redemption.
Tolkien discovered genuine joy. May we all!
- The Father Christmas Letters. Edited by Baillie Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1976)
- On Fairy-stories. Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. (Harper Collins, 2014) 77-78.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) 26.
- See these key themes of joy and pondering in Luke’s Gospel, chapters 1 and 2 in The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001).