Thursday, November 4, 2010

Letters from Father Christmas

Since the halls of Wal-Mart and Target have been decked since August, I figured I would join in the ir-revelry with a few thoughts on Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas.  It's one of Tolkien's lesser known classics and worth the time if you haven't read it.  There are even elves and goblins and red-gnomes in it for all the fanboys.

Some parents try to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus as long as they can, or at the very least, until some school yard prankster punks the unsuspecting child with the ultimate bubble-burster: "You believe in Santa!  HA!  He's not real."
Some parents don't bother telling their kids anything at all about this mysterious, red and white clad, portulent fellow up North.  Instead, they go for the rip-off-the-bandaid method and strike at the jugular of mythic men in strange suits - yes that goes for you too, Leprechaun, Easter Bunny, Diet Doctor Pepper Man, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And yet other parents just let the fad fizzle out like M.C. Hammer's career (and parachute pants), eventually the kids will figure out that it's bankrupt.  Stop.  Hamma time!  No seriously. Stop, M.C. Hammer; no more Jay-Z videos.

But J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't your average parent.  In fact, he wasn't your average writer either.  I still have a great deal to read about the Tolkien household and family life, so I'll withhold comment on the former statement in too much detail.  Letters from Father Christmas reveals a personal, maybe even intimate, creativity in Tolkien's early writing combined with the compassion and care of a loving father.  For over 20 years, Tolkien's children - Michael, Christopher and Priscilla - would receive letters from Father Christmas bearing news from the North Pole, filled with narrations of blundering adventures with the lovable, yet bumbling Polar Bear (affectionately known in the letters as Karhu, or P.B. for short).  Tolkien wrote because he loved the art of it, the work of sub-creation.  He loved writing for people, but most of all his children.  Which is why he also wrote, Roverandom - a story about a lost dog who meets a wizard and goes to the moon and under the sea - for Michael when he lost his precious lead toy dog on the beach.  But that's another story for another day.

So, where were we...ah, yes.  Father Christmas.  The artwork, the handwriting, the sketches of life in the North Pole - all done by Tolkien as well - were a yearly gift to his children.  After all, he was the pen and the genius behind the letters.  And as I read the letters, I began to wonder if there was more going on in the pages of these letters than childhood fantasy, charming prose and imaginative stories.  Of course, those are all good and precious things in and of themselves.  In fact, that was the main reason I picked up the collection of letters in the first place.  I did not expect to find the work of "primary art" in this masterpiece of Tolkien's sub-creation.  In the middle of the book, amidst the collection of water-colors and meticulously penned script was a post script.  Now most of Father Christmas' letters ended with a P.S.  But this one from Christmas Eve of 1934 was different.  Blink and you might just miss it.

I hope you will like your presents and be very happy.
Your loving
Father Christmas

PS I really can't remember exactly in what year I was born.  I doubt if anyone knows.  I am always changing my own mind about it.  Anyway it was 1934 years ago or jolly nearly that.  Bless you!  FC

My best guess is that one of the children wrote a letter, as they had been accustomed to doing for some time, back to Father Christmas asking him how old he was.  And in reply, Tolkien offered this unwittingly (although I think it was intentional) explanation of who Father Christmas really is.  Now we all know the first Christmas wasn't really on December 25th.  That came much later.  But you can read about that elsewhere.  Tolkien - and not so subtly either - identifies Father Christmas with Christ.  And this makes all the difference.  Yes, his stories were clever and witty, colorful and full of adventure - that is significant.  But this little post-script is the point behind the point, the ultimate behind the penultimate (I think you get the point).  Christmas - and in this case, the gifts from Father Christmas, or even the gifts we ourselves receive - are given to us precisely because of the first Christmas.  But it goes beyond that.  For the gift of the incarnation was not unwrapped in Bethlehem just to be tossed aside like any the Tickle-Me-Elmo so many of our parents stood in line for years ago.  No, this gift was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a tomb.  Christmas is all about receiving.  It is better to give than to receive - so that's exactly what our Heavenly Father did - He gave His one and only Son, gave Him as a ransom for us all, to redeem us, to give us eternal comfort, to gift us everything He has in simple water, performative words, dead-raising absolution and His Son's own body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  You see, God loves a cheerful giver.

What shall I render to the Lord, for all his benefits to me?  You can bring him the only gift you have to give, your sin.  And this too, He will take.  He will exchange your soiled and sin-ridden, rubbishness of an old nature and create in you the new nature that glories, rejoices, even revels in offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving.  For this sacrifice is none other than Christ's own sacrificial life being gifted and lived in your own life.  Christ for you.  Christ for the neighbor.  To borrow a phrase from Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, this is categorical gift.  For He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?  He will.  He has.  He does...He has redeemed us, lost and condemned people, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him with everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.  And this is why He continues to give us gifts, from the ones our parents (or write in Tolkien's case) give us every Christmas, to the ones we're given every day by His gracious hand.  Which is why we confess that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and my senses and still preserves them, not to mention clothes and shoes, etc. All this He does only out of Fatherly Christmas, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.
This was Tolkien's hope and consolation and it it ours as well.  Indeed, the birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man's history.  And the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.  This story - along with Tolkien's and yours - begins and ends in joy.  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

No comments:

Post a Comment